I’m inclined to think of George Orwell and F. A. Hayek at the same time. Both showed great courage in writing the truth, undaunted by the consequences awaiting them. Both valued freedom, though they understood it differently.
Orwell, a man of the “left,” could not remain silent in the face of the horrors of Stalinism. Twice — during the Spanish Civil War and again at the dawn of the Cold War — he refused to permit his comrades to blind themselves to where their collectivism had led and could lead again. For his favor he was called a conscious tool of fascism, a stinging accusation considering he had gone to Spain to fight fascism. (But for a few inches, the bullet that penetrated Orwell’s neck in Spain would have denied us the latter warnings, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. We would have never known what the fascists had cost us.)
Hayek, a man of the “right,” risked ostracism and worse in 1944 by publishing The Road to Serfdom, in which this Austrian-turned-Briton, writing in England at the height of World War II, warned that central economic planning would, if pursued seriously, end in a totalitarianism indistinguishable from the Nazi enemy. That couldn’t have been easy to write at that time and place — central planning was much in vogue among the intelligentsia. While a good deal of the reception was serious and respectful, a good deal of it was not. Herbert Finer, in Road to Reaction, called Hayek’s book “the most sinister offensive against democracy to emerge from a democratic country for many decades”; it expressed “the thoroughly Hitlerian contempt for the democratic man.”
Not surprisingly, it was The Road to Serfdom that brought Orwell and Hayek together in print. Orwell briefly reviewed the book along with Konni Zilliacus’s The Mirror of the Past in the April 9, 1944 issue of The Observer. The man who would publish Animal Farm a year later and Nineteen Eighty-Four five years later found much to agree with in Hayek’s work. He wrote:
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.
This is a significant endorsement, for no one understood totalitarianism as well as Orwell. Indeed, in Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens points out that Nineteen Eighty-Four impressed Communist Party members behind the Iron Curtain. He quotes Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, who before defecting to the West was a cultural attaché for the Polish communist government: “Orwell fascinates them [members of the Inner Party] through his insight to the details they know well…. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.” (An audio interview with Hitchens about Orwell is here.)
But true to his left state-socialism, Orwell could not endorse Hayek’s positive program:
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.
…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.
It’s disappointing to see Orwell give such short shrift to Hayek’s positive thesis. He is glib and dogmatic, which is unbecoming a serious intellectual such as Orwell. His ignorance of economics leaps from the page.
Got comments? Email me, dammit!
Permanent link for this article which can be used on any website: