TCS Daily


Atavistic Socialism

By Madsen Pirie - October 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Fall 2004 marks the 15th anniversary of the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. They regained their freedom one by one as the world watched, spellbound. The tearing down of the Berlin wall was a dramatic physical act which symbolized the process. It was as if the youth of Europe was hacking away at the fabric of Socialism itself.

F A Hayek had foretold the fall of Socialism. Its advocates and enthusiasts regarded it as the highest stage of progress, the final state of human development revealed by scientific study, and achieved by revolutionary activism. They regarded human history before that time as a collection of myths and superstitions, of barbarous beliefs and selfish exploitation.

When the great day dawned, humans would live in mutual respect and treat each other decently. Scientific analysis, applied to history and society, had revealed humankind's true destiny. Socialism was not something that could fall. Their analysis had taught them that its triumph was inevitable.

Hayek himself had little time for inevitability. He looked at human development with a more empirical mind, and observed that the human societies which prospered and survived were those which enabled certain institutions and practices to take firm root and be passed on to succeeding generations. Prominent among the cultural traditions which enabled this were things like respect for property rights, and a strong value placed upon family ties and loyalty. He included traditions such as those which encourage people to forgo present gratification in favour of greater future benefit.

Nobody thought this out, said Hayek. It was simply that the societies which respected and practised such things survived, while the other did not. New religions came and went through the ages, he observed. Those which incorporated values such as these might last, but the others would not. Hayek expressed the view that the 'false' religions which did not respect these values would be counted out, on average, after a few score years. The first generation adopted the new ways in the flush of enthusiasm; their children's loyalty to the ideas was weaker; and they would finally be abandoned during the third generation.

To the consternation of Socialists, Hayek treated Communism as if it were just another 'false' religion, albeit a seductive and deadly one. He conjectured that it would suffer the same fate as those other value systems which had run counter to the traditional values. His prescience was remarkable, for it was just over 70 years between the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the final collapse of its edifice just 15 years ago. Fortunately Hayek himself lived long enough to see his ideas vindicated, and saw Socialism, his lifelong enemy, predecease him.

I knew Hayek, both through the Mont Pelerin Society, and during his 15 years as chairman of the Adam Smith Institute's Board of Scholars. I was present in May 1978 when F A Hayek delivered the Hobhouse Lecture to the London School of Economics. The room was packed with staff and students as Hayek delivered a paper entitled The Three Sources of Human Values, which was published as an epilogue to vol III of his Law, Legislation and Liberty.

In that lecture Hayek explained that from the first source came ideas which were genetically determined and innate. The second source was the product of rational thought, the ideas we think up. These two were relatively minor. The third, and by far the most important, came by cultural transmission, the ideas passed on by society.

Part of his thesis was that human beings had developed their inherited moral instincts as hunters. As they later developed an extended society, interacting and trading, they had to learn culturally to subjugate the inherited instincts to the wiser and more rewarding morality of what he called The Great Society.

Hayek told his rapt audience that the old values of the hunting band still had their allure, including the urge to share everything when value could not be stored. Even with all that modern society makes possible, we still feel the inherited urge that we have learned to subjugate to the transmitted rules which make more worthwhile goals possible. The groups which learned to do that were the ones which survived and prospered.

Members of the audience actually gasped when Hayek referred to Socialism as 'atavistic' -- the reversion to an older, more primitive form. Many of the students were among those who thought that Socialism was modern and scientific, and could perhaps bring rational order to a chaotic and unjust world. Now here was Hayek equating it with a primitive instinct, inferior to the learned rules which had enabled human society to develop.

It was, perhaps, a defining moment. Socialism in Britain was at its high water mark, although it had visibly failed to bring about worthwhile objectives. Already its confidence was ebbing both within the country and internationally, together with the faith that it delineated the path to a better future. Now here was an intellectual attack on its very claim to modernity and rationality.

Less than a year after Hayek's lecture came the start of the counter-revolution. And just over a decade later the ruins of Socialism were littered across the landscapes of Europe.

The author is President of the Adam Smith Institute, London.


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