originally appeared in the Journal of Libertarian Studies.
You can listen
(MP3) to Murray Rothbard presenting the paper on Friday, October
16, 1981 at the monthly Libertarian Heritage Series, hosted by
the Center for Libertarian Studies.
von Mises was the outstanding champion of laissez-faire
and the free-market economy in this century is well known and needs
no documentation. But in the course of refining and codifying his
political views, Mises’s followers have unwittingly distorted them
and made them seem at one with the modern conservative movement
in the United States. Mises is made to appear a sort of National
Review intellectual concentrating on the free-market aspects
of conservatism. While the image of Mises as an essential conservative
is scarcely made up of the whole cloth, it totally overlooks rich
strains of Misesian thought that can be described only as “laissez-faire
radical.” Unfortunately, these strands of Misesian thought have
been all but lost. Perhaps this essay will help to right the balance.
There is no
need here to try to define and distinguish laissez-faire
“conservatism” from “radicalism.” A setting forth of various radical
positions taken by Mises should make the distinction clear enough.
aspects of Misesian thought are, again, too well known to require
discussion. Thus, for Mises, personal liberty was required by logical
consistency; for, if the government began to restrict or suppress
one or a few consumption goods, why should they stop at regulating
all? As a champion of consumer sovereignty and the consumer society,
Mises also had no patience with aristocratic conservatives who scorned
mass consumption or the rule of production by consumer demand.
squarely for the classical liberal policy of a peaceful foreign
policy and opposition to aggressive nationalism and imperialism.
Thereby he took his stand in opposition to conservatives of his
day and ours. Mises saw that internal peace through the division
of labor and freedom of enterprise has as its counterpart a devotion
to international peace and freedom of trade. He was proud to call
himself a “citizen of the world, a cosmopolite,” in contrast to
chauvinist nationalism, and he touted classical liberalism “with
its unconditional extolment of peace.”
saw that the general drive toward war was a reflection of the abandonment
of free trade and minimal government at home. If, for example, government
is small and abstains from any interference with the economy or
society, then it doesn’t matter much which State controls
which territory. But if States develop restrictions which exclude
goods or citizens of other States, then which State governs matters
a great deal.
proclaimed his “pacifism,” but made clear that it was to be distinguished
from the older sentimental pacifism. Instead his was the “pacifism
of the Enlightenment philosophy of natural law, of economic liberalism,
and of political democracy, which has been cultivated since the
18th century.” This kind of pacifism
arise from a sentiment that calls on the individual and the state
to renounce the pursuit of their earthly interests out of thirst
for fame or in hope of reward in the beyond; nor does it stand
as a separate postulate without organic connection with other
moral demands. Rather, pacifism here follows with logical necessity
from the entire system of social life. He who, from the utilitarian
standpoint, rejects the rule of some over others and demands the
full right of self-determination for individuals and peoples has
thereby rejected war also. He who has made the harmony of the
rightly understood interests of all strata within a nation and
of all nations among each other the basis of his world view can
no longer find any rational basis for warfare. He to whom even
protective tariffs and occupational prohibitions appear as harmful
to everyone can still less understand how one could regard war
as anything other than a destroyer and annihilator, in short,
as an evil that strikes all, victor as well as vanquished.
denounced the renewed Western imperialism of the late nineteenth
century as the consequence of a turn away from free trade and free
markets and a competing drive for exclusive State-controlled trading
areas. Mises was unsparing toward the Western imperialist powers,
including the relatively less dictatorial English empire, in his
We may date
the beginning of modern imperialism from the late seventies of
the last century, when the industrial countries of Europe started
to abandon the policy of free trade and to engage in the race
for colonial “markets” in Africa and Asia.
It was in
reference to England that the term “imperialism” was first employed
to characterize the modern policy of territorial expansion …
[T]he end that the English imperialists sought to attain in the
creation of a customs union embracing the dominions and the mother
country was the same as that which the colonial acquisitions of
Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, and other European countries
were intended to serve, viz., the creation of protected export
to attain the goals that imperialism aimed at, it was not enough
for the nations of Europe to occupy areas inhabited by savages
incapable of resistance. They had to reach out for territories
that were in the possession of peoples ready and able to defend
we see the imperialist aggressors in retreat or at least already
If Mises was
harsh on the “imperialist aggressors,” he was even harsher in his
assessment of the European imperialist and colonialist policies
pursued since the fifteenth century. He indicted European colonialism
in Asia and Africa for racism, rapine, and genocidal policies of
idea of colonial policy was to take advantage of the military
superiority of the white race over the members of other races.
The Europeans set out, equipped with all the weapons and contrivances
that their civilization placed at their disposal, to subjugate
weaker peoples, to rob them of their property, and to enslave
scornfully that “attempts have been made to extenuate and gloss
over the true motive of colonial policy with the excuse that its
sole object was to make it possible for primitive peoples to share
in the blessings of European civilization.” But Mises rebuts that,
if European civilization is truly superior, then “it should be able
to prove its superiority by inspiring these peoples to adopt it
of their own accord.” And he adds the passionate indictment: “Could
there be a more doleful proof of the sterility of European civilization
than that it can be spread by no other means than fire and sword?”
his radical philippic against Western imperialism:
of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism.
Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were
laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this
can in no way be extenuated or justified. The dominion of Europeans
in Africa and important parts of Asia is absolute. It stands in
the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and
democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its
To the argument
that total and immediate withdrawal of European governments from
the colonies would lead to conflict and anarchy, Mises replied:
It may be
safely taken for granted that up to now the natives have learned
only evil ways from the Europeans, and not good ones. This is
not the fault of the natives, but rather of their European conquerors,
who have taught them nothing but evil. They have brought arms
and engines of destruction of all kinds to the colonies; they
have sent out their worst and most brutal individuals as officials
and officers; at the point of the sword they have set up a colonial
rule that in its sanguinary cruelty rivals the despotic system
of the Bolsheviks. Europeans must not be surprised if the bad
example that they themselves have set in their colonies now bears
evil fruit…. Nor would they be justified in maintaining
that the natives are not yet mature enough for freedom and that
they still need at least several years of further education under
the lash of foreign rulers before they are capable of being left
on their own. For this “education” itself is at least partly responsible
for the terrible conditions that exist today in the colonies,
even though its consequences will not make themselves fully apparent
until after the eventual withdrawal of European troops and officials.
As to the argument
that the Europeans must remain in the colonial lands in the interests
of the natives themselves Mises heaped scorn upon such sham expressions
No one has
a right to thrust himself into the affairs of others in order
to further their interest, and no one ought, when he has his own
interests in view, to pretend that he is acting selflessly only
in the interest of others.
If it is radical
and not conservative to be bitterly opposed to war and to Western
imperialism, it is equally anti-conservative to be devoted to the
concept of “national self-determination.” In truth, national self-determination
is the other side of the coin of anti-imperialism, for it means
that the imperial power must be dislodged from its rule over subject
scorn the right of national self-determination as leading to the
Balkanizing and dividing up of Great Powers and hence as inconsistent
with power politics. But to Mises, self-determination of nations
and nationalities was simply grounded in the rights of individuals.
The right of self-determination of nationalities and sub-groups
stems from the rights of man. Thus Mises states:
To the princely
principle of subjecting just as much land as obtainable to one’s
rule, the doctrine of freedom opposes the principle of the right
of self-determination of peoples, which follows necessarily from
the principle of the rights of man. No people and no part of a
people shall be held against its will in a political association
that it does not want.
out that he starts his analysis with the individual, and that nationalism
too is grounded on the individual. In fact, he refers to nationalism
as “the national aspect of the individual person.”
As an individualist, he is not content to leave the concept of self-determination
with the national unit. On the contrary, the right of self-determination
should be with individuals, the inhabitants of smaller
as well as larger territorial areas, who should be able to exercise
their will by means of freely-conducted plebiscites. Thus, Mises
To call this
right of self-determination the “right of self-determination of
nations” is to misunderstand it. It is not the right of self-determination
of a delimited national unit, but the right of the inhabitants
of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to
sub-group, to Mises, has then the right to choose what state to
belong to, or even to set up its own independent state. Therefore:
of self-determination in regard to the question of membership
in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular
territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or
a series of adjacent districts make it known, by a freely conducted
plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state
to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent
state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes
are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible
and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international
How far would
Mises push the principle of secession, of self-determination? Down
to a single village, he states; but would he press beyond even that?
He calls the right of self-determination not of nations, “but rather
the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory
large enough to form an independent administrative unit.” But how
about self-determination for the ultimate unit, for each individual?
Allowing each individual to remain where he lives and yet secede
from the State is tantamount to anarchism, and yet Mises comes very
close to anarchism, blocked only by practical technical considerations:
If it were
in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination
to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is
impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations,
which make it necessary that the right of self-determination be
restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas
large enough to count as territorial units in the administration
of the country.
at least in theory, believed in the right of individual secession
and therefore came close to anarchism can also be seen in his description
of liberalism, that “it forces no one against his will into the
structure of the State.”
If there is
anything that characterizes conservative foreign policy in the twentieth
century it is a persistent policy of military confrontation with
Soviet Russia. No domestic political and economic system could have
been more abhorrent to Ludwig von Mises than Bolshevism. Russia’s
totalitarian collectivism cut against the grain of all Mises’s ideals
of a free market, democracy and minimal government.
Mises consistently pursued a foreign policy of peace and nonintervention
even here. First, “Let the Russians be Russians. Let them do what
they want in their own country.” There should be free importation
of Russian writings: “Neurotics may enjoy them as much as they wish;
the healthy will, in any case, eschew them.” The Russians should
even be permitted, Mises went on, to spread their propaganda and
bribe people throughout the world: “If modern civilization were
unable to defend itself against the attacks of hirelings, then it
could not, in any case, remain in existence much longer.” Further,
Westerners should be permitted to visit Russia if they wish: “Let
them view at first hand, at their own risk and on their own responsibility,
the land of mass murder and mass misery.” And capitalists should
be permitted to grant loans or invest capital in Russia: “If they
are foolish enough to believe that they will ever see any part of
it again, let them make the venture.”
But the corollary
of a noninterventionist policy of refraining from war or prohibitions
is also refraining from artificial subsidy. The Western governments,
advised Mises, “must stop promoting Soviet destructionism by paying
premiums for exports to Soviet Russia and thereby furthering the
Russian Soviet system by financial contributions. Let them stop
propagandizing for emigration and the export of capital to Soviet
concluded that “Whether or not the Russian people are to discard
the Soviet system is for them to settle among themselves….
The only thing that needs to be resisted is any tendency on our
part to support or promote the destructionist policy of the Soviets.”
World War II, Mises went so far as to look benignly on the prospect
of a Communist Germany emerging after the war. For communism would
succeed in wrecking Germany’s industrial machine and thereby weaken
its potential for making war in the future.
turns toward communism it cannot be the task of foreign nations
to interfere…. The intelligent opponents of communism …
will not understand why their nation should essay to prevent the
Germans from inflicting harm upon themselves. The shortcomings
of communism would paralyze and disintegrate Germany’s industrial
apparatus and thereby weaken its military power more effectively
than any foreign intervention could ever do.
is invariably marked by a policy of immigration restrictions, to
preserve the homogeneity of the national culture or ethnic character,
and to raise the standard of living of national workers by keeping
out laborers who would lower wage rates at home. Mises’s laissez-faire
radicalism was marked by uncompromising attachment to freedom of
immigration. Not only that; so bitter was he at any immigration
laws that at times he came close to calling for war against those
nations, such as the United States and Australia, who persisted
in locking up parts of the earth and keeping out other peoples.
pointed out that immigration barriers are creatures of trade unions,
who use them as a method of raising domestic wage rates by excluding
foreign workers. The result is to keep foreign workers in a permanently
less productive situation with lower wage rates, and to lower the
productivity of human labor throughout the world. Wage exclusionism,
plus racial fears of foreigners, account for the persistence of
immigration barriers in the United States and Australia.
Mises confined himself to pointing out that immigration barriers
will only be able to be removed in a classical liberal world. In
a world of minimal States, what difference would it make for Americans
or Australians which ethnic or racial groups were in a majority
in their country?
At other times,
however, Mises was not so gentle. In Nation,
State and Economy he called Australia “the imperialistic
state par excellence in its immigration legislation,” and linked
this policy with its greater closeness to socialism than any of
the other Anglo-Saxon states (in 1919). 
What is more, he chastised the League of Nations for not doing something
about the U.S./Australian policy of immigration restrictions:
It is still
more serious that the League of Nations does not recognize the
freedom of movement of the person, that the United States and
Australia are still allowed to block themselves off from unwanted
immigrants…. Never can Germans, Italians, Czechs, Japanese,
Chinese, and others regard it as just that the immeasurable landed
wealth of North America, Australia, and East India should remain
the exclusive property of the Anglo-Saxon nation and that the
French be allowed to hedge in millions of square kilometers of
the best land like a private park. 
most bitter assault upon American and Australian immigration barriers
came in an article for a Viennese newspaper at the end of 1935.
He points out that there are extensive tracts of land which are
sparsely settled, notably in the U.S.A. and the British Commonwealth
nations. As a result of their relatively scarce population, their
productivity, and hence their wage rates, are higher than in Europe.
Hence these lands
the goals of would-be European immigrants for more than 300 years.
However, the descendants of those earlier emigrants now say: There
has been enough migration. We do not want other Europeans to do
what our forefathers did when they emigrated to improve their
situation. We do not want our wages reduced by a new contingent
of workers from the homeland of our fathers. We do not want the
migration of workers to continue until it brings about the equalization
of the height of wages. Kindly stay in your old homeland, you
Europeans, and be satisfied with lower wages.
sardonically that the oft-celebrated “‘miracle’ of the high wages
in the United States and Australia may be explained simply by the
policy of trying to prevent a new immigration. For decades people
have not dared to discuss these things in Europe.”
But Mises made it clear that here was one European who
was not afraid to discuss these issues. In fact, after pointing
out that European workers suffer from these immigration barriers,
he warns darkly that
it may be
that one day they will reach the conclusion that only weapons
can change this unsatisfactory situation. Thus, we may face a
great coalition of the lands of would-be emigrants standing in
opposition to the lands that erect barricades to shut out would-be
that the League of Nations is trying to rectify underlying conditions
of conflict in order to avoid war. But he warns that simply rectifying
the problem of raw materials or the colonies, or giving back German
colonies, would not be enough, for
European emigrants seek is land where Europeans can work under
climatic conditions that are tolerable for them and where they
can earn more than they can in their homeland, which is overpopulated
and less well provided for by nature. Under present circumstances
this can be offered only in the New World, in America and Australia….
This is a problem of the right of immigration into the largest
and most productive lands, the climates of which are suitable
for white European workers. Without the reestablishment of freedom
of migration throughout the world, there can be no lasting peace.
The idea that
there are class conflicts in society, and that there is a ruling
class or classes which governs and exploits a ruled, would seem
to be Marxian concepts alien to classical liberalism. Classical
liberals believe in the harmony of long-run interests of everyone
in society, so that, it would seem, statist intervention is merely
the product of unsound and erroneous ideas rather than the pursuit
of common group or class interests at the expense of the rest of
It is true
that the latter analysis is the dominant strain in Mises’s thought.
But there is another motif, which exists in Mises as well
as in classical liberalism from Adam Smith onward. This is an attack
on “special privilege,” sought by various groups through the State
at the expense of everyone else, pursuing what may be their short-run
but is still their strongly felt advantage. Subsidies, compulsory
cartels, protective tariffs and, as we have seen, immigration restrictions
are among the many examples. But in that case common venality takes
its place alongside error as a reason for statism.
In the history
of thought, classical liberals rather than Marxists pioneered in
the concept of the “ruling class” – defined not in the Marxian sense
as including the hiring of wage workers on the market, but strictly
as that group or groups that gets control of the State apparatus
and uses it to benefit itself at the expense of the rest of the
society. Perhaps the first “class conflict” theorists were the libertarian
writers Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, in Reconstruction France
after the final defeat of Napoleon.
The Comte-Dunoyer thesis, influenced by J. B. Say, was that “ruling
class” may be defined simply as that class which manages to rule
the State, while the ruled are those dominated by the former through
the State. Thus, class conflict does not inhere in the
free-market economy or society, but is strictly in relation
of State. Class harmony exists only on the free market; class
conflict is generated by statism and by the relation of classes
to the State.
French nobleman, Count Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, was originally
a disciple of Comte and Dunoyer, and picked up his own theory of
class conflict from them. Unfortunately, as Saint-Simon and particularly
his followers (the Saint-Simonians) became socialists, they changed
the theory of class conflict to add a fatally inconsistent element.
It was this self-contradictory theory of classes that was then picked
up by Karl Marx and incorporated into the Marxist structure. Briefly,
it held, with Comte and Dunoyer, that the major stages of statism
had been, first, Oriental despotism, in which an emperor and his
tax-supported bureaucracy constituted the ruling class exploiting
and dominating the peasantry; and, second, feudalism, in which landlords
dominated the State and used it to expropriate the peasantry and
exact rents from them. In both cases, Oriental despotism and feudalism,
the ruling classes were those who managed to seize control of the
State apparatus, the organized engine of violence in society. But
then the Saint-Simonians and Marx added another exploitative “ruling
class”: capitalists who hire workers on the market. Before capitalism,
in short, conflicting classes are defined as those in different
relations to the State. In contrast, capitalists who hire
workers engage in a market transaction, have nothing to do with
the State, and yet for some reason are supposed to have a common
interest. What the socialists overlooked is that capitalists’ hiring
workers is a voluntary rather than a coercive transaction; and that
capitalists have no class interests in common. On the contrary,
capitalists compete with each other, just as workers do. There are
no common “capitalist” or worker class interests on the free market.
Mises, while showing no knowledge of previous classical liberal
ruling class theory, arrived at a very similar analysis. He distinguished
early between “classes,” which could logically be any grouping of
people on the free market and which had no common or conflicting
in interests, and “estates” or what he later called “castes.” Castes
have common interests conflicting with those of other castes, for
their relations to the State differ. In contrast to classes in the
market, which have no common interests and therefore do not conflict
with each other,
legal institutions, not economically determined facts. Every man
was born into an estate and generally remained in it until he
died. All through life one possessed estate-membership, the quality
of being a member of a certain estate. One was master or serf,
freeman or slave, lord of the land or tied to it, patrician or
plebeian, not because one occupied a certain position in economic
life, but because one belonged to a certain estate.
on to scoff at the later whitewashing of feudalism as being reciprocal
and somehow voluntary, as “the higher orders gave the lower protection,
sustenance, the use of the land, and so on.” But on the contrary,
were alien to the institution in its heyday, when the relationship
was frankly one of violence, as may be clearly seen in the first
essential distinction drawn by estate – the distinction between
free and unfree. The reason why the slave looked on slavery as
natural, resigning himself to his lot instead of continuing to
rebel and run away … was not that he believed slavery to
be a just institution, equally advantageous to master and slave,
but simply that he did not want to endanger his life by insubordination.
or castes have in common are their superior or inferior positions
before the law. Thus: “In a society divided into estates all members
of the estates who lack complete rights before the law have one
interest in common with other members: they struggle to improve
the legal position of their estate. All who are bound to the soil
strive to have the burden of rent lightened; all slaves strive for
freedom, that is, for a condition under which they can use their
labour for themselves.”
explicitly that common class interests are a function of state intervention:
is suspended by special interests only when economic liberty is
limited in some way…. Liberal theory does not deny that
state interference in trade creates special interests, nor that
by this means particular groups can extract privileges for themselves.
It merely says that such special favours … lead to violent
political conflict, to revolts of the nonprivileged many against
the privileged few, which by constantly disturbing the peace,
hold up social development.
clearest exposition of the difference between “class” and “caste”
came in an article written in 1945. He points out:
Under a caste
system … [s]ociety is divided into rigid castes. Caste membership
assigns to each individual certain privileges (privilegia
favorabilia) or certain disqualifications (privilegia
odiosa). As a rule a man['s] … personal fate is inseparably
linked with that of his caste. He cannot expect an improvement
of his conditions except through an improvement in the conditions
of his caste or estate. Thus there prevails a solidarity of interests
among all caste members and conflict of interests among the various
castes. Each privileged caste aims at the attainment of new privileges
and at the preservation of the old ones. Each underprivileged
caste aims at the abolition of its disqualifications. Within a
caste society there is an irreconcilable antagonism between the
interests of the various estates….
In a free-market
society … there are neither privileged nor underprivileged.
There are no castes and therefore no caste conflicts. There prevails
the full harmony of the rightly understood (we say today, of the
long-run) interests of all individuals and of all groups.
Our age is
full of serious conflicts of economic group interests. But these
conflicts are not inherent in the operation of an unhampered capitalist
economy. They are the necessary outcome of government policies
interfering with the operation of the market. They are not conflicts
of Marxian classes. They are brought about by the fact that mankind
has gone back to group privileges and thereby to a new caste system.
One of the
hallmarks of conservatism, in this century as in the last, is devotion
to Christianity both as a religion and as the foundation of the
social order. Christianity is supposed to be the bulwark of the
rights of private property.
In his brief
discussion of religion in his magnum opus, Human
Action, Ludwig von Mises took a moderate tone. Liberalism,
Mises reiterates, is not anti-religion, but combats any theocratic
attempt to impose a social order according to alleged divine commands.
But in his earlier work, Socialism, he set forth a detailed
critique of Christianity. Here Mises was far more caustic. Indeed,
his chapter “Christianity and Socialism” is a virtual philippic
against the social implications of the Christian Gospel.
While he concedes
that the Christian Gospels are formally neutral with respect to
any social order, Mises sees several dire implications that necessarily
follow from the Gospels. First, he claims that Jesus’ teachings
make sense only as admonitions for a Kingdom of God that was supposed
to arrive imminently – hence the early voluntary “communism” of the
Christians, the injunctions by Jesus to take no heed of work or
toil, etc. So that at best, Jesus’ teachings were supposed to apply
not to life on earth but only for preparation for the imminent transmutation
of the earth into the Kingdom of God. But then, when that Kingdom
failed to arrive, the Gospels became disastrous if taken seriously
as a social ethic. Furthermore, Jesus’ teachings, for Mises, are
filled with hatred and resentment of the rich – relatively harmless
if earthly life is to end instantly, but fatal if taken seriously
as an ethic for the world and for human society.
Mises, the Christian Church, despite continuing attempts to come
to terms with the world and to carve out a reasonable social ethic,
is stuck because of its necessary groundwork in Jesus’ Gospels,
which Mises regards as ranging from silly to downright dangerous.
passage conveys the flavor of Mises’s view of Jesus as nihilist
waiting for the imminent arrival of the Kingdom:
is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and
believe the gospel.” These are the words with which in the Gospel
of Mark, the Redeemer makes his entry (Mark I, 15). Jesus
regards himself as the prophet of the approaching Kingdom of God,
the Kingdom which according to ancient prophecy shall bring redemption
from all earthly insufficiency, and with it from all economic
cares. His followers have nothing to do but to prepare themselves
for this Day. The time for worrying about earthly matters is past,
for now, in expectation of the Kingdom men must attend to more
important things. Jesus offers no rules for earthly action and
struggle; his Kingdom is not of this world. Such rules of conduct
as he gives his followers are valid only for the short interval
of time which has still to be lived while waiting for the great
things to come. There the believers will eat and drink at the
Lord’s table. (Luke XXII, 30).
It is only
in this way that we can understand why, in the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus recommends his own people to take no thought for food, drink,
and clothing; why he exhorts them not to sow or reap or gather
in barns, not to labour or spin. It is the only explanation, too,
of his disciples’ “communism” … The primitive Christians
do not produce, labour, or gather anything at all. The newly converted
realize their possessions and divide the proceeds with the brethren
and sisters. Such a way of living is untenable in the long run.
It can be looked upon only as a temporary order which is what
it was in fact intended to be. Christ’s disciples lived in daily
expectation of Salvation….
of God’s own reorganization when the time came and the exclusive
transfer of all action and thought to the future Kingdom of God,
made Jesus’ teaching utterly negative. He rejects everything that
exists without offering anything to replace it. He arrives at
dissolving all existing social ties…. The motive force behind
the purity and power of this complete negation is ecstatic inspiration
and enthusiastic hope of a new world. Hence his passionate attack
upon everything that exists. Everything may be destroyed because
God in His omnipotence will rebuild the future order…. The
clearest modern parallel to the attitude of complete negation
of primitive Christianity is Bolshevism. The Bolshevists, too,
wish to destroy everything that exists because they regard it
as hopelessly bad. But they have in mind ideas, indefinite and
contradictory though they may be, of the future social order….
Jesus’s teaching in this respect, on the other hand, is merely
This is not
all, however, for in attempting to establish a worldly ethic, the
Church finds that the Gospels are filled with attacks on the rich.
In fact, for Mises, resentment against the rich is at the heart
of Gospel teaching:
of course is clear, and no skilful [sic] interpretation
can obscure it. Jesus’s words are full of resentment against the
rich, and the Apostles are no meeker in this respect. The Rich
Man is condemned because he is rich, the Beggar praised because
he is poor…. In God’s Kingdom the poor shall be rich, but
the rich shall be made to suffer. Later revisers have tried to
soften the words of Christ against the rich … but there
is quite enough left to support those who incite the world to
hatred of the rich, revenge, murder and arson…. This is
a case in which the Redeemer’s words bore evil seed. More harm
has been done, and more blood shed, on account of them than by
the persecution of heretics and the burning of witches. They have
always rendered the Church defenceless against all movements which
aim at destroying human society. The church as an organization
has certainly always stood on the side of those who tried to ward
off communistic attack. But it … was continually disarmed
by the words: “Blessed be ye poor; for yours is the Kingdom of
goes on to attack the common conservative idea that Christianity
forms a vital bulwark “against doctrines inimical to property, and
that it makes the masses unreceptive to the poison of social incitement.”
But much as the Church might wish to do so, it is stuck with the
Gospels, which are “indifferent to all social questions on the one
hand, full of resentment against all property and against all owners
on the other.” Hence, carried over to the real world, Christian
doctrine “can be extremely destructive.” For
nowhere can a system of social ethics embracing social cooperation
be built up on a doctrine which prohibits any concern for sustenance
and work, while it expresses fierce resentment against the rich,
preaches hatred of the family, and advocates voluntary castration.
cultural achievements of the Church over the centuries, according
to Mises, were the work of the Church, and not of Christianity.
“The Church’s achievement,” asserted Mises, was to “render them
[the social ethics of Jesus] harmless,” but it could necessarily
do so for only a limited period of time. Therefore, he concludes,
rather than the Enlightenment having cleared the way for socialism
by undermining religious feeling, it is Christianity that has done
so, bearing full fruit in the various forms of Christian Socialism.
The Church has been harmful rather than helpful to private property
and a free economy: “it is the resistance which the Church has offered
to the spread of liberal ideas which has prepared the soil for the
destructive resentment of modern socialist thought.” The official
Church tried to resist the Christian Socialist movements at first,
“but it had to submit in the end, just because it was defenseless
against the words of the Scriptures.
the Christian Church is always striving to dominate society, and
hence is trying to suppress individual freedom:
As long as
rationalism and the spiritual freedom of the individual are maintained
in economic life, the Church will never succeed in fettering thought
and shepherding the intellect in the desired direction. To do
this it would first have to obtain supremacy over all human activity.
Therefore it cannot rest content to live as a free Church in a
free state; it must seek to dominate that state.
then, by being highly pessimistic about the possibility of reconciling
Christianity with a free social order based on private property.
“A living Christianity cannot, it seems, exist side by side with
Capitalism.” He finds only one slim hope for an opposite conclusion:
the thin possibility that the Roman Catholic Church, threatened
by chauvinist nationalism and national (Protestant) churches, may
abandon nationalism and adopt the true universalism of unconditional
private property in the means of production.
Mises find any more hope in religions other than Christianity; to
the contrary, they are dismissed brusquely and with contempt. Eastern
religions are hopelessly anti-capitalist; the Greek Church “has
been dead for over a thousand years”; and the “Islamic and Jewish
religions are dead.” Islam and Judaism “offer their adherents nothing
more than a ritual”; they “suppress the soul, instead of elevating
and saving it.” They maintain themselves by “rejecting everything
foreign and ‘different’, by traditionalism and conservatism. Only
their hatred of everything foreign rouses them to great deeds from
time to time.”
was born in bitter reaction against the French Revolution. From
that day to this, all branches of conservatism unite in hostility
to that Revolution, which they castigate as the precursor of the
Bolshevik Revolution and of the other totalitarian evils of the
twentieth century. The American Revolution, in contrast, was the
“good” revolution because it was not really a revolution at all,
but simply a conservative response to defend the status quo
against the encroachments of the British Crown.
Mises, in contrast, was always a consistent admirer of the French
Revolution which he perceived as a movement inspired by the American
Revolution and its libertarian ideals. He regarded himself as a
man of 1789, an heir of the Enlightenment.
after World War I, Mises asserted that “for us and for humanity
there is only one salvation: return to the rationalistic liberalism
of the ideas of 1789.”
In contrast, in the “League of Nations of Versailles the ideas of
1914 are in truth triumphing over those of 1789.”
of this paper, in the light of the recent Mises centennial year,
is to rescue the real, “historical” Mises from the image which has
been generally formed of him and has been adopted by the bulk of
his followers. This is the nonthreatening image of Mises as a quintessential
National Review conservative.
But we find
that, particularly in the years before his American “exile,” Mises
was virtually the diametric opposite of a modern conservative. These
views were not stressed during his later American period, but neither
were they repudiated. Discussion of them more or less dropped out
of Misesian writings. But to ignore the earlier Mises is to ignore
a basic theme of his thought, for his thought forms a remarkably
consistent whole over the decades of his long and active life.
We find, then,
a Mises with the following strongly held political views: a proclaimed
pacifist, who trenchantly attacked war and national chauvinism;
a bitter critic of Western imperialism and colonialism; a believer
in nonintervention with regard to Soviet Russia; a strong proponent
of national self-determination, not only for national groups, but
for subgroups down to the village level – and in theory, at least,
down to the right of individual secession, which approaches anarchism;
someone so hostile to immigration restrictions that he almost endorsed
war against such countries as the United States and Australia to
force them to open up their borders; a believer in the importance
of class conflict in relation to the State; a caustic rationalist
critic of Christianity and of all religion; and an admirer of the
views were, they were most emphatically not conservatism.
On the contrary, they were something very different and in age-old
conflict with conservatism. Ludwig von Mises was truly and proudly
an heir of early-nineteenth-century laissez-faire radicalism,
of Bentham, of James Mill, Cobden, and Spencer. He was a rationalist
and a libertarian.
“The goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that
of its foreign policy: peace. It aims at peaceful cooperation just
as much between nations as within each nation…. The ultimate ideal
envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind….
Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not
just parts…. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes
in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism;
and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite” (Ludwig
von Mises, Liberalism:
A Socio-Economic Exposition [1927; 2nd ed., Kansas City:
Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, 1978], pp. 105–106).
Mises, “Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics
and History of Our Time,” translation by Leland Yeager, of Nation,
Staat und Wirtschaft (1919), p. 91, (Humanities Press, forthcoming).
Herbert Marcuse, in an attempt to smear classical liberalism with
the brush of fascism and advocacy of war, engaged in a shameful
distortion of Mises by wrenching a passage of Liberalism
out of context in attempting to make Mises seem to be pro-fascist.
If the context is examined, Mises engages in a fervent critique
of fascism for its anti-liberalism and for its attempt to suppress
ideas by violence. As for its foreign policy, fascism’s glorification
of force “cannot fail to give rise to an endless series of wars
that must destroy all of modern civilization … ” Mises’s one sentence
of approval of fascism was for its allegedly saving Italy from Bolshevism
after World War I. Also disgraceful is Marcuse’s total neglect of
Mises’s later Omnipotent
Government, virtually a sustained philippic against Nazism
of Mises can be found in his Negations
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 9–10. The passage from Mises (not
footnoted by Marcuse) can be found in Liberalism, p. 51,
and the full context of Mises’s views on fascism in ibid.,
pp. 47–51. Also see Mises, Omnipotent Government (New Haven,
Conn.: Yale University Press, 1944).
Mises, Liberalism, pp. 123–24.
Ibid., p. 125.
Ibid., p. 126.
Ibid., p. 127.
Ibid., p. 8.
Mises, Liberalism, p. 109. Mises adds that it therefore
grossly violates true self-determination for one nation-state to
try to incorporate citizens of other territories against their consent,
and simply because of their ethnic or linguistic ties. In particular,
he mentions the demand of the Italian Fascists to incorporate Italian-speaking
Swiss cantons into Italy, and the Pan-German wishes to incorporate
German Swiss cantons. Ibid.
Ibid., p. 109.
Ibid., pp. 109–110.
Mises, Nation, State and Economy, p. 41.
Mises, Liberalism, p. 153.
Ibid., pp. 153–54.
Mises, Omnipotent Government, p. 264.
Mises, Liberalism, pp. 141–42.
Mises, Nation, State and Economy, p. 192n.
Ibid., p. 97.
Mises, “The Freedom to Move as an International Problem,” trans.
Bettina Bien Greaves from “Freizügigkeit als internationales
Problem” (1935), in The Clash of Group Interests and Other Essays
(New York: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1978), pp. 19–22.
Ibid., p. 20.
Ibid., pp. 21–22.
Ibid., p. 22.
See the notable article by Leonard P. Liggio, “Charles Dunoyer and
French Classical Liberalism,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies
1 (Summer 1977): 153–78.
The fact that Marxists say that, as a second and further step, the
“capitalists” then gain control of the State, which becomes the
“executive committee of the ruling class,” is not enough to save
their theory. For the capitalists are supposed to be a “ruling class”
simply by virtue of being capitalists, and before their
alleged takeover of the State, which is only supposed to add an
extra dimension to their class rule.
(1922; 2nd ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), p. 332.
Mises also points out trenchantly that Marx and Engels continually
confused the concepts of class and estate, and that Marx broke off
the third volume of Capital just when he was finally about
to tackle a task he had never accomplished: a precise definition
of his much-used concept of “class” (ibid., pp. 328n.,
Ibid., p. 333.
Ibid., pp. 335–36.
Ibid., p. 337.
Mises, “The Clash of Group Interests” (1945), in Mises, Clash
of Group Interests and Other Essays, pp. 2–3, 5. In this
essay, for the last time, Mises returned to his immigration theme,
pointing out that, say in Australia and New Zealand, immigration
laws had “integrated their whole citizenry into a privileged caste.”
By such immigration barriers, the workers of these countries “create
those tensions which must result in war whenever those injured by
such policies expect that they can brush away by violence the measures
of foreign governments that are prejudicial to their own well-being”
(ibid., pp. 4–6).
Mises returned to the theme of caste vs. class in his last major
work, Theory and History (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1957), pp. 113–16.
“It would … be a serious mistake to conclude that the sciences of
human action and the policy derived from their teachings, liberalism,
are antitheistic and hostile to religion. They are radically opposed
to all systems of theocracy. But they are entirely neutral with
regard to religious beliefs which do not pretend to interfere with
the conduct of social, political, and economic affairs.” And: “It
is a distortion of fact to say, as many champions of religious theocracy
do, that liberalism fights religion. Where the principle of church
interference with secular issues is in force, the various churches,
denominations and sects are fighting one another. By separating
church and state, liberalism established peace between the various
religious factions and gives to each of them the opportunity to
preach its gospel unmolested” (Mises, Human Action, 3rd
rev. ed. [Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1966], pp. 155, 157).
Mises, Socialism, pp. 409–29.
Ibid., pp. 413–16.
Ibid., pp. 419–20.
Ibid., pp. 420–21.
Ibid., p. 420.
Ibid., p. 427.
Ibid., pp. 428–29. For an excellent discussion of
Mises as laissez-faire radical and particularly of Mises
on Christianity, see Ralph Raico, “Ludwig von Mises,” The Alternative:
An American Spectator (February 1975), pp. 21–23.
Mises, Socialism, p. 410. Also see ibid., p. 428.
Mises, Nation, State and Economy, p. 239.
Ibid., p. 238.
N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State, Conceived
in Liberty, What
Has Government Done to Our Money, For
a New Liberty, The
Case Against the Fed, and many
other books and articles. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The