Ludwig von Mises: Marxism Unmasked

NOTE: This is the first part of a ten part series based on the book Marxism Unmasked, by Ludwig von Mises, including nine lectures delivered at the San Francisco in 1952 under the sponsorship of The Freeman magazine. It includes commentary by Richard Eberling.–A/D

The lectures by Ludwig von Mises contained in Marxism Unmasked were delivered at the San Francisco Public Library, June 23–July 3, 1952, under the sponsorship of The Freeman magazine. They were taken down, word for word, in shorthand and transcribed by Mrs. Bettina Bien Greaves. She has very kindly made these lectures available to the Foundation for Economic Education for publication. Mrs. Greaves worked as a senior staff member at FEE for practically 50 years, only retiring in 1999. Along with her late husband, Percy L. Greaves, Jr., she was a long-time friend and associate of Ludwig von Mises. Indeed, there are few people in the world today who are as conversant with Mises’s ideas and writings as she.

The publication of these lectures has been made possible through the kind and generous continuing support of Mr. Sheldon Rose of Farmington Hills, Michigan, and the Richard E. Fox Foundation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Special thanks are due to Mr. Michael Pivarnik, Executive Director of the Fox Foundation, for his dedicated interest in the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics and Ludwig von Mises in particular.

Mrs. Beth Hoffman, managing editor of FEE’s monthly magazine, The Freeman, has once again overseen the entire preparation of the manuscript. Her eye for detail in all things is reflected in the fine final product.

by Richard M. Ebeling
Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises delivered these nine lectures, which we have titled Marxism Unmasked, from June 23 to July 3, 1952, in San Francisco at a seminar sponsored by The Freeman. A history teacher who received a scholarship to attend the program later wrote to the magazine to say:

The lectures themselves I found provocative, stimulating and highly rewarding. As a classic exposition of the virtues of individualism and the evils of socialism, buttressed with an impressive array of scholarship, they were unmatched. . . . I am not trying to say that I became converted completely to the set of ideas that Dr. Mises and the Freeman represent. But I do say that any student or teacher of the social sciences who fails to think deeply on these ideas is negligent and ill-informed, if not worse. This feeling the seminar did leave me with. Certainly I personally appreciate some of these ideas far more than I did a month ago.[1]

It is worth recalling the state of the world in 1952 when Ludwig von Mises gave these lectures. Everywhere around the globe Soviet socialism seemed to be on the march. World War II had left all of Eastern Europe in the grip of the Soviet Union. In 1949, mainland China had fallen under the control of Mao Zedong’s communist armies. In June of 1950 the Korean War had broken out, and in 1952 American armies under the UN flag were in a bloody stalemate along the 38th parallel against the forces of North Korea and Communist China. The French were immersed in a seemingly endless colonial conflict in Indochina against Ho Chi Minh’s communist guerrilla army.

In the West, large numbers of intellectuals were persuaded that “history” was inescapably on the side of socialism, under the leadership Comrade Stalin in the Kremlin. Communist parties in France and Italy had large memberships, and followed every ideological twist and turn made by Moscow. Even many of those who rejected the brutality of Soviet-style socialism still believed that economic planning was inevitable. A prominent political scientist at the University of Chicago even declared in 1950 that “Planning is coming. Of this there can be no doubt. The only question is whether it will be the democratic planning of a free society, or totalitarian in character.”[2]

In both Europe and the United States it was presumed that capitalism, when left unregulated, could only lead to exploitation, misery, and social injustice. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic were introducing ever more stringent interventionist and welfare statist policies meant to ameliorate the supposed cruelty of the market economy. And because of the “emergency” of the Korean War, the U.S. government had further burdened the American people with a comprehensive system of wage and price controls that hampered almost every aspect of economic activity.[3]

The primary source and impetus for the global bias toward socialism were the writings of Karl Marx (1818–1883). He claimed to have discovered the invariant “laws” of human historical development that would lead to the demise of capitalism and the triumph of socialism, followed by a final transition to a blissful, post-scarcity communist world. During the intermediary socialist stage leading to communism, Marx declared, there would be a “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” It would prevent remnants of the old capitalist ruling class from trying to return to power and would “reeducate” the workers into a “higher consciousness” free from the residues of the prior bourgeois mentality.[4]

What makes this entire process inescapable and irreversible, Marx insisted, is that the physical means of production follow technological transformations in a series of historical stages that are beyond man’s control. Each of these stages of transformation requires a particular set of human institutional relationships for the full blossoming of that technology’s potential. What men, in their limited and subjective views of the world, take to be the invariant foundations of human life—morality, family, property, religious faith, customs and traditions, and so on—are merely the temporary elements of a societal “superstructure” serving the ends of the objective material forces of production during each of these historical epochs. Therefore, even man’s “consciousness” about himself and the world around him is a product of his particular place and role in this process of historical evolution.[5]

Every man’s “class” position in society, according to Marx, is determined by his relationship to the ownership of the means of production. Those who own the means of production in capitalist society must, by historical necessity, “exploit” the others who offer their labor services to them for hire. The capitalist class lives off the labor of the working class by expropriating as “profit” a part of what the laborers in their employ have produced. Hence, these two social classes are in irreconcilable conflict with each other for the material rewards of human labor. This conflict reaches its climax with the violent overthrow of the exploiters by the proletariat, who experience an increasing economic misery during the final death throes of the capitalist system.[6]

In the new socialist order that replaces capitalism, the means of production will be nationalized and centrally planned for the economic betterment of the vast majority of humanity, and no longer will be used only for the profit-oriented benefit of the capitalist property owners. Economic planning will generate material prosperity far exceeding anything experienced under capitalism; technological advances and rising production will not only eliminate poverty but also push society to a level of material abundance at which all physical wants and worries will be a thing of the past. This final stage of communism will create a paradise on earth for all mankind.[7]

Ludwig von Mises as Critic of Socialism
There were many critics of socialism and Marxism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the most outstanding was the French economist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, who in 1885 penned an extremely insightful and devastating analysis of collectivism, addressing its dangers to both personal liberty and economic prosperity.[8] In 1896 one of Ludwig von Mises’s own professors at the University of Vienna, the internationally renowned Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, published the most damaging critique of Marx’s labor theory of value and the accompanying idea of exploitation of labor under capitalism.[9] There were even highly effective anti-utopian novels that depicted the disastrous effects to be expected if a socialist regime were to come to power and impose central planning on society.[10]

But none of these writers was as penetrating in demonstrating the inherent unworkability of a system of socialist central planning as Ludwig von Mises. During World War I and its immediate aftermath there was an enthusiastic confidence that the age of government planning had finally arrived. The wartime price and wage controls and production planning boards imposed in virtually all the belligerent nations were considered by many the precursors of continued peacetime planning. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, Lenin’s Marxist regime imposed “war communism” in 1918, heralding it not only as an emergency device to fight the anti-communist White armies during the three-year civil war in Russia, but also as the great leap into the fully planned society. And following the end of the war in November 1918, new Social Democratic Party governments in Germany and Austria declared that the time for “socialization” and economic planning had finally arrived.[11]

In 1919, at a meeting of the Austrian Economic Society, Mises delivered a paper on “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” which was published in a leading German-language journal in 1920.[12] He incorporated this article as the centerpiece in a comprehensive treatise on collectivism that he published two years later in 1922, titled Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis in its English translation.[13]

Mises observed that most of the earlier critics of socialism had rightly pointed out that a system of comprehensive government planning of economic affairs would create the worst tyranny ever experienced in human history. With all production, employment, and distribution of output completely under the monopoly control of the State, the fate and fortune of every individual would be at the mercy of the political authority. In addition, these earlier opponents of socialism had cogently argued that with the end of private property and freedom of enterprise, individuals would lose much of the self-interested motivation for industry, innovation, and work effort that exists in a market economy.

But, Mises said, what had not been thoroughly examined and challenged was whether a socialist economic system was even workable in practice. In other words, would the socialist central planners be able to rationally and efficiently manage the everyday affairs of economic life? His answer was no. In the market economy production is guided by the expected consumer demand of the buying public. Businessmen and entrepreneurs, in the quest to earn profits and avoid losses, must direct the resources at their disposal in a way that minimizes their costs of production relative to the expected revenues from supplying goods and services that consumers want to purchase.

Money prices for both finished consumer goods and the means of production facilitate the process. The prices for consumer goods tell entrepreneurs what consumers want. The prices for the means of production—land, labor, and capital—tell them the costs of producing those goods with different types of resources and raw materials in different combinations. The entrepreneur’s task is to select that resource “mix” that minimizes the expense of bringing goods to market in the quantities and qualities demanded by consumers.

The price attached to any one of those resources (whether it be land, labor, or capital) reflects its value in alternative uses, as represented by the competing bids to purchase or hire it by rival entrepreneurs who also seek to employ it for some production purpose in the market. Unless the expected price for the finished good is able to cover the costs necessary to employ a variety of resources to produce it, it is uneconomical—wasteful—to devote those resources for its manufacture. As Mises later explained in his book on Bureaucracy, “To the entrepreneur of capitalist society a factor of production through its price sends out a warning: Don’t touch me, I am earmarked for the satisfaction of another, more urgent need” of the consuming public.[14]

This means that the price system of a competitive free market tends to assure that the scarce resources of society are allocated and used in a way that best reflects the wants and desires of all of us in our roles as consumers. Since one of the inescapable elements of the world in which we live is constant change, every shift in consumer demand and every modification in the availability and uses of those scarce resources are reflected in changes in the market structure of relative prices. Such changes in the structure of market prices provide new information to both producers and consumers that they may have to adjust their buying, selling, and production decisions, given the new circumstances.

Mises’s challenge to the socialists was to argue that this “rationality” of the market, which constantly coordinated selling prices with cost-prices, and supply with demand, would be totally absent under a system of central planning. Prices emerge out of the buying and selling of the market participants. But buying and selling are only possible with the institution of private property, under which goods and resources are owned, used, and transferred through voluntary exchange at the discretion of the owners.

Furthermore, under capitalism the complex network of market transactions is made possible through the use of a commonly accepted medium of exchange—money. With all goods and resources bought and sold in the market through a medium of exchange, their respective exchange values are all expressed in terms of the same common denominator: their money prices. This common denominator of money prices enables the process of “economic calculation,” i.e., the comparing of relative costs with selling prices.

The primary goal of practically all socialists in the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century was the abolition of private property, market competition, and money prices. In their place, the State would nationalize the means of production, and as the “trustee” of the interests of the “working class” would centrally plan all of society’s economic activities. The central planning agency would determine what got produced, how and where it was produced, and then distribute the resulting output to the members of the new “workers’ paradise.”

Mises showed that the end of private property would mean the end to economic rationality. Without private ownership of the means of production—and no competitive market upon which rival entrepreneurs could bid for those resources based on their profit-motivated estimates of their respective values in producing goods desired by the consuming public—there would be no way to know real and actual opportunity costs among the potential alternative uses for which they might be applied. How, therefore, would the central planners know whether or not they were misusing and wasting the resources of society in their production decisions? As Mises summarized the dilemma, “It is not an advantage to be ignorant of whether or not what one is doing is a suitable means of attaining the ends sought. A socialist management would be like a man forced to spend his life blindfolded.”[15]

Even if a socialist system were not controlled by brutal dictators but instead by human “angels” who only wanted to do “good” for humanity, and even if the incentives for work and industry were not reduced or eliminated through the abolition of private property, Mises was able to demonstrate that the very institutional structure of a socialist regime made it impossible for it to produce a material “heaven on earth” for mankind superior to the productive and innovative efficiency of a functioning free-market economy.[16] It is what enabled Mises to declare in the early 1930s, when the appeal of socialist planning around the world was reaching its zenith, that, “From the standpoint of both politics and history, this proof is certainly the most important discovery made by economic theory. . . . It alone will enable future historians to understand how it came about that the victory of the socialist movement did not lead to the creation of the socialist order of society.”[17]

Mises’s San Francisco Lectures
Mises believed that any comprehensive critique of socialism had to deal with more than merely its unworkability as an economic system, however central this was to the case against socialism. It was also necessary to challenge and refute the philosophical and political underpinnings of the socialist and Marxian conceptions of man and society. His 1922 book on Socialism attempted to do this in great detail. And he returned to this theme a few years after he delivered these lectures in San Francisco in his work on Theory and History.[18]

What Mises offered those attending these lectures in late June and early July of 1952 was a clear understanding and insight into the fundamental errors and misconceptions to be found in Marx’s theories of dialectical materialism and class warfare, as well as a historical analysis of the real benefits from the Industrial Revolution that coincided with the emergence of modern capitalist society. He also explains the role of savings, investment, and the profit and loss system as the engines for economic and cultural progress, and which have helped eliminate the poverty that has plagued mankind through most of history.

In an especially insightful lecture, Mises discusses the nature and workings of capital markets and the importance of market-based interest rates free from government manipulation and inflation. In addition, he shows that foreign investment in underdeveloped parts of the world have not been the cause of poverty or exploitation, as socialists have constantly claimed, but the source of accelerated prosperity and human improvement for tens of millions of people in these countries.

All of these arguments and analyses are placed in the wider context of individualism versus collectivism, the importance of freedom for the dignity and betterment of every human being, and the dangers from surrendering liberty and property to the paternalistic state. Through it all, the reader is offered a vision of the classical-liberal ideal of the free and prosperous society.

As with an earlier series of lectures that Ludwig von Mises delivered in 1951, and which was published by FEE under the title The Free Market and Its Enemies,[19] a unique quality of Marxism Unmasked is that it captures Mises as teacher. Unlike many of his longer, more formal writings, these lectures are peppered with numerous historical asides and common-sense examples that convey the ease and spirit of the spoken word.

These lectures, like the earlier ones, were taken down, word for word, in shorthand and then transcribed by Bettina Bien Greaves, a long-time former senior staff member at the Foundation for Economic Education. Mrs. Greaves is one of the leading experts on the ideas and writings of Ludwig von Mises, and her deep appreciation for his contributions to economic theory and policy is reflected in the care with which she transcribed these lectures for eventual publication. They would not be available now in print if not for her dedication and diligent scholarship, for which we are all especially grateful.

When Mises delivered these lectures Marxian socialism seemed to be conquering the world. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Marxian criticisms of capitalist society still set the tone for those around the world who persistently hope for the end of human freedom and the market economy.[20] For that reason, what Mises had to say more than 50 years ago still has much meaning for us today.

But now, simply enjoy “listening” to the mind of one of the greatest economists of the twentieth century as you read this book.

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