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Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
Chapter 17. Socialistic Chiliasm
Ludwig von Mises

1. The Origin of Chiliasm

Socialism derives its strength from two different sources. On the one hand it is an ethical, political, and economico-political challenge. The socialist order of society, fulfilling the claims of higher morality, is to replace the "immoral" capitalist economy; the "economic rule" of the few over the many is to give way to a co-operative order which alone can make true democracy possible; planned economy, the only rational system working according to uniform principles, is to sweep away the irrational private economic order, the anarchical production for profit. Socialism thus appears as a goal towards which we ought to strive because it is morally and rationally desirable. The task therefore of men of good will is to defeat the resistance to it which is inspired by misunderstanding and prejudice. This is the basic idea of that Socialism which Marx and his school call Utopian.

On the other hand, however, Socialism is made to appear as the inevitable goal and end of historical evolution. An obscure force from which we cannot escape leads humanity step by step to higher planes of social and moral being. History is a progressive process of purification, with perfection, in the form of Socialism, at the end. This train of thought does not run counter to the ideas of Utopian Socialism. Rather it includes them, for it presupposes, as obviously self-evident, that the socialist condition would be better, nobler, and more beautiful than the non-socialist. But it goes farther; it sees the change to Socialism—envisioned as progress, an evolution to a higher stage—as something independent of human will. A necessity of Nature, Socialism is the inevitable outcome of the forces underlying social life: this is the fundamental idea of evolutionary socialism, which, in its Marxist form, has taken the proud name of "Scientific" Socialism.

In recent times scholars have been at pains to prove that the main notions of the materialist or economic conception of history had been set forth by pre-Marxian writers, among them some of those whom Marx and his supporters contemptuously call Utopians. These researches and the critique of the materialist conception of history which accompany them, however, tend to set the problem in much too narrow a perspective. They concentrate on the peculiarities of the Marxist theory of evolution, its specifically economic nature, and the importance it gives to the class war, and they forget that it is also a doctrine of perfection, a theory of progress and evolution.

The materialist conception of history contains three elements, which, though they combine to form a closed system, have each a special significance for the Marxian theory. First, it involves a special method of historical and sociological research. As such it tries to explain the relation between the economic structure and the whole life of a period. Secondly, it is a sociological theory, since it sets up a definite concept of class and class war as a sociological element. Finally, it is a theory of progress, a doctrine of the destiny of the human race, of the meaning and nature, purpose and aim of human life. This aspect of the materialist conception of history has been less noticed than the other two, yet this alone concerns socialist theory as such. Merely as a method of research, an heuristic principle for the cognition of social evolution, the materialist conception of history is obviously in no position to talk about the inevitability of a socialistic order of society. The conclusion that our evolution is tending towards Socialism does not of necessity follow from the study of economic history. The same is true of the theory of the class-war. Once the view has been adopted that the history of all previous society is the history of class struggles, it becomes difficult to see why the struggle of classes should suddenly disappear. Might it not be supposed that what had always been the substance of history will continue to be so to the very end? Only as a theory of progress can the materialist conception of history concern itself with the final goal of historical evolution and assert that the decay of Capitalism and the victory of the proletariat are alike inevitable. Nothing has helped the spread of socialist ideas more than this belief that Socialism is inevitable. Even the opponents of Socialism are for the most part bewitched by it: it takes the heart out of their resistance. The educated person is afraid of appearing unmodern if he does not show that he is actuated by the "social" spirit, for already the age of Socialism, the historic day of the Fourth Estate, is supposed to have dawned and everyone who still clings to Liberalism is in consequence a reactionary. Every triumph of the socialist idea which brings us nearer to the socialist way of production is counted as progress; every measure which protects private property is a setback. The one side looks on with sadness or an even deeper emotion, the other with delight, as the age of private property passes with the changing times, but all are convinced that history has destined it to irrevocable destruction.

Now as a theory of progress, going beyond experience and what can be experienced, the materialist conception of history is not science but metaphysics. The essence of all metaphysics of evolution and history is the doctrine of the beginning and end, the origin and purpose of things. This is conceived either cosmically, embracing the whole universe, or it is anthropocentric and considers man alone. It can be religious or philosophic. The anthropocentric metaphysical theories of evolution are known as the philosophy of history. The theories of evolution which are of a religious character must always be anthropocentric, for the high significance religion attaches to mankind can be justified only by an anthropocentric doctrine. These theories are based generally on the assumption of a paradisiac origin, a Golden Age, from which man is moving farther and farther away, only to return finally to an equally good, or, if possible, even better, age of perfection. This generally includes the idea of Salvation. The return of the Golden Age will save men from the ills which have befallen them in an age of evil. Thus the whole doctrine is a message of earthly salvation. It must not be confused with that supreme refinement of the religious idea of Salvation developed in those doctrines which transfer salvation from Man's earthly life into a better world Beyond. According to these doctrines the earthly life of the individual is never the final end. It is merely preparation for a different, better and painless existence which may even be found in a state of non-existence, in dissolution in the All, or in Destruction.

For our civilization the message of salvation of the Jewish prophets came to have a special importance. The Jewish Prophets promise no salvation in a better world beyond, they proclaim a Kingdom of God on Earth. "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth the seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt."[1] "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed, their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."[2] Only when such a message of salvation is promised for the immediate future will it be joyfully accepted. And in fact Isaiah says that only "yet a very little while" separates men from the promised hour.[3] But the longer they have to wait the more impatient must the faithful become. What good to them is a Kingdom of Redemption which they will not live to enjoy! The promise of salvation therefore, must necessarily expand into a doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead, a Resurrection that brings every individual before the Lord, to be judged good or evil.

Judaism is full of these ideas at the time when Jesus appears among his people as the Messiah. He comes not only to proclaim an imminent salvation but also, in fulfilment of the prophecy, as the bringer of the Kingdom of God.[4] He walks among the people and preaches, but the world goes its way as of old. He dies on the cross, but everything remains as it was. At first this shakes the faith of the disciples profoundly. For the time being they go all to pieces and the first little congregation scatters. Only belief in the Resurrection of Christ crucified reinspires them, filling them with fresh enthusiasm and giving them the strength to win new adherents to their doctrine of salvation.[5] The message of salvation they preach is the same that was preached by Christ: the Lord is near and with him the great Day of Judgment, when the world shall be renewed and the Kingdom of God founded in place of the Kingdoms of the world. But as expectation of an imminent Return of Christ vanished and the growing congregations began to settle down to a longer period of waiting, the belief in salvation had also to undergo a change. No lasting world-religion could have been built up on the belief that the Kingdom of God was imminent. Each day that left the prophecy unfulfilled would have impaired the Church's prestige. The fundamental idea of primitive Christianity that the Kingdom of God was at hand had to be transformed into the Christian cult: into the belief that the heavenly presence of their risen Lord entered into the congregation, and into belief in the salvation of the sinful world by Him. Only thus could the Christian Religious Community be founded. From the moment of this transformation Christian doctrine ceases to expect a Kingdom of God on Earth. The idea of salvation is sublimated into the doctrine that by baptism the faithful become part of the Body of Christ. "Already in Apostolic times the Kingdom of God becomes merged in the Church, and all that is left for the Coming of the Kingdom is the glorification of the Church, the shattering of the earthly vessel, and the liberation of the shining treasure from its mortal frame. For the rest, the Kingdom of God is replaced by the eschatology of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, Immortality and the Beyond—a contrast to the Gospels which is of the highest significance. But even this end recedes, until at last the Millennium came to mean the Church." [6]

There was, however, another way of meeting the difficulties which arose when fulfilment of the promise had been postponed longer than was originally expected. The faithful could take refuge in the belief which had once sustained the Prophets. According to this doctrine an earthly Kingdom of Salvation lasting one thousand years would be set up. Condemned by the Church as heresy, this doctrine of the Visible Return of Christ is continually revived not only as a religious and political belief, but above all as an idea of social and economic revolution.

From Christian Chiliasm, which runs through the centuries constantly renewing its strength, a single step leads to the philosophic Chiliasm which in the eighteenth century was the rationalist reinterpretation of Christianity; and thence, through Saint Simon, Hegel, and Weitling to Marx and Lenin.[7] Curiously enough, it is this particular Socialism, derived in this way from mystical ideas whose origin is lost in the darkness of history, which has called itself scientific Socialism, while it has tried to disqualify as "Utopian" the Socialism that is derived from the rational considerations of the philosophers.

The philosophical anthropocentric metaphysics of evolution resembles the religious in every essential. In its prophecy of salvation is found the same strange mixture of ecstatically extravagant phantasy with uninspired commonplace and coarse materialism as is found in the most ancient messianic prophecies. Like Christian literature which seeks to interpret the apocalypse, it tries to prove itself applicable to life by interpreting concrete historical events. In these attempts it often makes itself ridiculous, rushing in on every great occasion with a doctrine which both meets the case and embraces the history of the universe. How many of these philosophies of history arose during the World War!

2. Chiliasm and Social Theory

The metaphysical philosophy of history must be clearly distinguished from the rational. The latter is built up solely on experience, seeking results which are based on logic and empiricism. Wherever rational philosophy has to go beyond this, it tries hypotheses, but it never forgets where experience ceases and hypothetical interpretations begin. Where experience is possible it avoids using conceptual fictions; it never tries to supplant experimental science. Its only aim is to unify our view of social events and of the course of historical evolution. Only thus is it able to establish a law which governs changes in social conditions. By indicating, or attempting to indicate, the force which determines the growth of society, it endeavours to reveal the principle determining social evolution. This principle is assumed to be externally valid, that is, it is active so long as there is any society at all. Were it otherwise, a second principle would have to be placed next to this one, and it would be necessary to show under which conditions the first ruled and under which the second. But this only means that the law governing the interchange of the two principles would be the ultimate Law of Social Life.

To define a principle according to which society grows, and changes in social conditions take place, is a different thing from defining the course which social evolution takes. Such a course is necessarily limited. It has a beginning and an end. The reign of a law is necessarily unlimited, without beginning or end. It is continuity, not an occurrence. The law is imperfect if it defines only a part of social evolution and leaves us in the lurch after a certain point. In this case it would cease to be a law. The end of social evolution can be no other than that of society itself.

The teleological view describes the course of evolution in all its windings and deviations. Thus it is typically a theory of stages. It shows us the successive stages of civilization until one is reached which must necessarily be the last, because no other follows it. When this point has been reached it is impossible to see how history is to proceed.[8]

The chiliastic philosophy of history takes the "standpoint of Providence, which lies beyond all human wisdom"; it aims at prophesying as only "the eye of a God" could prophesy.[9] Whether we call its teaching Poetry, Prophecy, Faith, Hope or anything else whatever, there are two things it can never be: Science or Knowledge. Nor may it be called hypothesis, any more than the utterances of a clairvoyant or a fortune-teller may be called hypotheses. It was an unusually clever trick on the part of the Marxists to call their chiliastic teachings science. Such a step was bound to be effective in an age when people relied on nothing but science, and rejected metaphysics (though, admittedly, only to surrender themselves uncritically to the native metaphysics of Büchner and Moleschott).

The law of social evolution tells us much less than the metaphysics of evolution. It limits its statements a priori in admitting that its sway can be frustrated by the co-existence of forces other than those it describes. On the other hand, it admits no limits to its applicability. It claims eternal validity, it is without beginning and without end. But it does not evoke a dark fate whose "will-less and impotent bearers" we are. It discloses only the inner driving power of our own will, revealing how it conforms to natural laws and why its existence is necessary. This is insight, not into man's destiny, but into man's doings.

In so far as "scientific" Socialism is metaphysics, a chiliastic promise of salvation, it would be vain and superfluous to argue scientifically against it. It serves no useful purpose to fight mystical dogmas with reason. There is no teaching fanatics. They must break their heads against the wall. But Marxism is not merely chiliasm. It is sufficiently influenced by the scientific spirit of the nineteenth century to attempt to justify its doctrine rationally. With these attempts, and these only, we shall deal in the following chapters.

[1] Amos, IX, 13.

[2] Isaiah, XI, 6-9.

[3] Isaiah, XXIX, 17.

[4] Whether or not Jesus held Himself to be the Messiah we need not discuss here. The only important thing for us is that He announced the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God and that the first congregation looked on Him as the Messiah.

[5] Pfleiderer, Das Urchristentum, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1902), Vol. I, pp. 7 ff.

[6] Troeltsch, "Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kitchen und Gruppen" in Gesammelte Schriften (Tübingen, 1912), Vol. I, p. 110.

[7] Gerlich, Der Kommunismus als Lehre vom tausendjährigen Reich (Munich, 1920), pp. 27 ff.

[8] Wundt, Ethik, 4th ed. (Stuttgart, 1912), Vol. II, p. 246. One sees in Engels' survey of the history of warfare a characteristic example of how ready the representatives of this movement are to see the end of all evolution attained. Engels there—1878—expresses the opinion that, with the Franco-German war, "a turning point of quite other importance than all previous ones had occurred" in the history of warfare. "Weapons are so perfected that a fresh process of any revolutionary influence is no longer possible. When one has guns which can hit a battalion as far as the eye can see and rifles which can do the same with a single person as aim, with which loading takes less time than firing, then all further advances are more or less indifferent in field war. Thus the era of evolution on this side is essentially closed." See Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, p. 176. In judging other views, Marx understands well how to find out the weaknesses of the theory of stages. According to their teachings, says Marx, "a history has existed but none exists any longer." See Das Elend der Philosophie, German translation by Bernstein and Kautsky, 8th ed. (Stuttgart, 1920), p. 104. He merely does not notice that the same will be true of his teachings on the day when the means of production will have been socialized.

[9] Kant, "Der Streit der Fakultäten" (Collected Works, Vol. I), p. 636.

See also



  • Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. (1981)
  • "Ludwig von Mises" on Google Books

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