Review by Orwell: The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek / The Mirror of the Past by K. Zilliacus Observer, 9 April 1944
Taken together, these two books give grounds for dismay. The first of them is an eloquent defence of laissez-faire capitalism, the other is an even more vehement denunciation of it. They cover to some extent the same ground, they frequently quote the same authorities, and they even start out with the same premise, since each of them assumes that Western civilization depends on the sanctity of the individual. Yet each writer is convinced that the other’s policy leads directly to slavery, and the alarming thing is that they may both be right.
Of the two, Professor Hayek’s book is perhaps the more valuable, because the views it puts forward are less fashionable at the moment than those of Mr Zilliacus. Shortly, Professor Hayek’s thesis is that Socialism inevitably leads to despotism, and that in Germany the Nazis were able to succeed because the Socialists had already done most of their work for them, especially the intellectual work of weakening the desire for liberty. By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it. Britain, he says, is now going the same road as Germany, with the left-wing intelligentsia in the van and the Tory Party a good second. The only salvation lies in returning to an unplanned economy, free competition, and emphasis on liberty rather than on security.In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.
Professor Hayek is also probably right in saying that in this country the intellectuals are more totalitarian-minded than the common people. But he does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.
Mr Zilliacus’s able and well-documented attack on imperialism and power politics consists largely of an exposure of the events leading up to the two world wars. Unfortunately the enthusiasm with which he debunks the war of 1914 makes one wonder on what grounds he is supporting this one. After retelling the sordid story of the secret treaties and commercial rivalries which led up to 1914, he concludes that our declared war aims were lies and that ‘we declared war on Germany because if she won her war against France and Russia she would become master of all Europe, and strong enough to help herself to British colonies’. Why else did we go to war this time? It seems that it was equally wicked to oppose Germany in the decade before 1914 and to appease her in the nineteen-thirties, and that we ought to have made a compromise peace in 1917, whereas it would be treachery to make one now. It was even wicked, in 1915, to agree to Germany being partitioned and Poland being regarded as ‘an internal affair of Russia’: so do the same actions change their moral colour with the passage of time.
The thing Mr Zilliacus leaves out of account is that wars have results, irrespective of the motives of those who precipitate them. No one can question the dirtiness of international politics from 1870 onwards: it does not follow that it would have been a good thing to allow the German army to rule Europe. It is just possible that some rather sordid transactions are going on behind the scenes now, and that current propaganda ‘against Nazism’ (cf. ‘against Prussian militarism’) will look pretty thin in 1970, but Europe will certainly be a better place if Hitler and his followers are removed from it.Between them these two books sum up our present predicament. Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.
Both of these writers are aware of this, more or less; but since they can show no practicable way of bringing it about the combined effect of their books is a depressing one.