Science and peace will triumph over ignorance and war.
—LOUIS PASTEUR, 1892
Science will flourish only in a society that cherishes…the reason, openness, tolerance, and respect for the autonomy of the individual that distinguish the social process of science.
—GERALD PIEL, 1986
Although the twentieth century produced unprecedented improvements in health, wealth, and welfare, it also saw the rise of totalitarian regimes that killed a hundred million people, threatened the survival of the liberal democracies—and ravaged ideas as well as lives, fomenting persistent misapprehensions about liberalism and science that persist to this day. Liberalism began to look quaintly old-fashioned, an eighteenth-century indulgence in a world whose future was widely presumed to belong to fascism, communism, or some other form of socialism. Science, previously esteemed, was blamed for the machine guns that mowed down young men on the battlefields, the napalm that incinerated cities by night—and, of course, for the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even many scientists adopted such views. “The physicists have known sin,” declared J. Robert Oppenheimer, chief scientist of the Manhattan Project, adding that in making “an evil thing,” they had “raised again the question of whether science is good for man.” His colleague Philip Morrison expressed concern about “a latent but growing feeling that science is somehow turning evil or blind. The people have the right to ask why must we do research if the outcome is the ruin of Hiroshima and its hundred thousand blackened corpses.” The mathematician and philosopher Michael Polanyi spoke of “the destructive potentialities of the scientific outlook” being realized in wars “which shattered our belief in liberal progress.” It began to be said, and not just on the fringe, that scientists ought to be held accountable for the consequences of their research, and that governments should intervene to channel research toward socially responsible goals. Such an approach was thought to be working in the totalitarian states, which were perceived as more efficient than the democracies at promoting scientific and technical advancement—as witnessed by the Nazi deployment of wartime wonders like the V-1 and V-2 rockets, and the Soviet Union’s acquisition of thermonuclear weapons and its launch of the Sputnik earth satellite.
If, indeed, totalitarianism nourished science and technology more efficiently than liberalism did, then the future of liberalism looked dark. But was this the case? How did science fare in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and communist China?
Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis went through fitful excursions into liberalism while enjoying considerable scientific success. Following the European revolutions of 1848—when an economic depression touched off rebellions in the German Confederation, France, and Italy—the vested interests sought to preserve their traditions of nationalism, militarism, and monarchism by enacting just enough reform to stave off further unrest. The man who best managed this balancing act was Otto von Bismarck, appointed prime minister by King William in 1862. Bismarck was personally conservative but regarded all passionate political convictions as impediments to effective statecraft, preferring to absorb—and almost to embody—many points of view: “It was not that Bismarck lied [but] that he was always sincere” wrote Henry Kissinger, one of his many admirers. Crown Princess Victoria of Germany judged Bismarck to be “mediaeval altogether and the true theories of liberty and of government are Hebrew to him, though he adopts and admits a democratic idea or measure now and then when he thinks it will serve his purpose.” Neurotic and insecure—he was an insomniac, a hysteric, and a morphine addict who, said a contemporary, “eats too much, drinks too much and works too much”—Bismarck projected an image of unbending self-confidence. “I want to make music in my own way,” he said, “or not at all.”
Bismarck’s way of maintaining the monarchy was to build the power of the state while playing off the liberals and progressives against one another and otherwise maneuvering as necessary to forestall any real threat of Germany’s becoming a genuine democracy. He drove a wedge through the liberal party, then the nation’s largest, by forming an alliance with its left wing (which supported labor unions and big government) in order to weaken its moderate center (home to the liberals, who favored small government and free enterprise). The progressives got state-sponsored health insurance, workplace safety measures, and an eight-hour workday. Liberals got women’s rights, a freer press, freer trade, and freer elections; Germany for a time had the only effective secret ballot in Europe. Conservatives got to retain the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the real power. “In exchange for lavish trinkets from an all-powerful state,” writes the conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg, “Bismarck bought off the forces of democratic revolution. Reform without democracy empowered the bureaucratic state while keeping the public satisfied.” This cynical recipe would prove chillingly effective in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
It was, however, inherently unstable. Europe in general was unstable—as was demonstrated when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serb nationalist on June 28, 1914, resulted, to everyone’s surprise, in the Great War. Instabilities continued to bedevil the Germany of the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), when innovations like expressionist art contended with the conservatism of monarchists, militarists, university professors, and government bureaucrats. Much of our ongoing fascination with Weimar libertinism—nudity and drugs in the nightclubs, Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel—derives from the fact that these romps were played out by young adults who, like drunken teenagers skinny-dipping in the swimming pool just before the parents come home, had too little political power to accept the responsibilities that went along with their newly acquired freedoms.
During its time of limited liberal and progressive reform, Germany emerged as a center of scientific research and development. Germans could boast of scientific accomplishments like Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895, Max Planck’s founding of quantum physics in 1900, and Einstein’s 1905 and 1915 theories of relativity. Their technological accomplishments included the invention of aspirin and heroin (advertised in tandem in the late 1800s, as relieving headaches and coughs respectively); Gottlieb Daimler’s early automobiles, from 1887; Otto Lilienthal’s gliders (he died testing one, in 1896, saying on his deathbed, Opfer müssen gebracht werden!—“Sacrifices must be made!”); Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s dirigibles, from 1900; the first electric typewriter; the electric locomotive; the Geiger counter; and the first machine gun synchronized to fire between the blades of a spinning aircraft propeller. It was said that the dream of every German mother was to have a son who was an engineer. When Hitler came to power in the midst of the Great Depression—having won 34.3 percent of the vote in 1930, and his party 44 percent in 1933, in elections sadly consonant with Benjamin Franklin’s grim warning that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”—he took over a technological ship of state that made headway on sheer inertia even as he went to work dismantling its engines.
Hitler wanted to harness the power of science, of course. Like any dictator he wanted all the power he could get his hands on, demanding the “total mobilization” of science toward one or another hellish goal. But he understood little of what science is or how it works, relying for news of promising scientific developments on conversations with his barber. Comprehending nothing but power, Hitler assumed that science would quicken to the sharpened spurs of ruthless rule. “The triumphant progress of technical science in Germany and the marvelous development of German industries and commerce,” he asserted, “led us to forget that a powerful State had been the necessary prerequisite of that success.” He imagined that science was useful principally “as an instrument for the advancement of national pride.” Schools should teach “will-power” instead. “Instruction in the sciences,” Hitler decreed, “must be considered last in importance.”
Personally, Hitler was entangled in an obscuring web of pseudoscientific enthusiasms ranging from fad diets—he drank a toxic gun-cleaning fluid as a digestif—to avoidance of harmful “earth-rays,” the emanations of which the physician Gustav Freiherr von Pohl mapped out for him with a dowsing rod. Cosmologically, Hitler favored the “glacial cosmogony” theory concocted by an amateur astronomer, Philipp Fauth, and an Austrian engineer, Hanns Hörbiger, according to which the stars were balls of ice. He was blind to the prospects of technological progress other than those useful for killing people (Hannah Arendt: “The totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed”). Even there he displayed little foresight, dismissing the combat potential of rockets and jet aircraft while disdaining the possibility of nuclear weapons as a fantasy promoted by “Jewish physics.”
To the notion that science could be flattened under the boots of power and still deliver the goods—a fallacy described by Jacob Bronowski as “trying to buy the corpse of science”—the Nazis added leaden layers of superstition and pseudoscience. Looming large among these was a racial doctrine that proclaimed the superiority of an Aryan Nordic race, destined to rule a world cleansed of genetic impurities. Although decked out in costumes of mythological antiquity, these ideas were actually crackpot novelties: “Aryan,” a Sanskrit word for Persian nobility, had only recently been imported into European discourse, and “Nordic” was coined in 1898. Neither term described a race, much less a “pure” race, whatever such a thing might be. Nor would genetic purity confer an advantage on any population: The strength of a species resides in its genetic diversity, which improves its likelihood of surviving environmental changes. As Joseph Needham said of Nazi racial doctrines, “A more shameless flying in the face of established scientific fact has never been known in human history.”
It would be rather astounding if a party founded on pseudoscience and maximally illiberal power politics had presided over any significant number of scientific or technological breakthroughs—and indeed, there is scant evidence to support the popular image of the Third Reich as a futuristic war machine. The German military was an imposing force to be sure, arising as it did from generations of military professionalism, lavish infusions of fresh spending by the Nazi regime, and a passion for vengeance following Germany’s humiliating defeat in the Great War, but it was no monument to science. Starved for steel, the Nazis sent storm troopers to scavenge iron fences from public parks and cemeteries. Industrial chemists were ordered to develop synthetic rubber and gasoline, tasks at which they mostly failed. Nearly half of German’s wartime artillery came not from German factories but from conquered neighbors, mainly France. (Such shortages were a major reason behind Hitler’s disastrous decision to invade Russia.) The backbone of Germany’s military transport system consisted of railways plus seven hundred thousand horses. “In weapons and technology,” writes the historian Alan J. Levine, “the German forces were greatly superior only to their weakest and most backward foes, i.e., Poland, Norway and the Balkan countries. Generally speaking, Germany’s victories were due to good leadership, training, and the revolutionary use made of tanks and tactical airpower.” In cryptology, which provides a reasonable arena for comparing the scientific and technological capacities of adversaries in wartime, the Nazis’ greatest achievement was the Enigma encoding device. It was so thoroughly cracked by British scientists that German submarine attacks in the Atlantic came almost to a halt, obliging British leaders to exercise restraint in acting on what they learned from deciphered Enigma dispatches for fear the German high command might otherwise realize what was up.
When people think of “Nazi science” today they usually have in mind either eugenics or the pointless and sadistic “experiments” carried out by Nazi doctors in the death camps. But such obscenities can be described as science only in the rather distant sense that, say, Theodore Kaczynski’s “Unabomber Manifesto” can be called philosophy. The death-camp doctors discovered little beyond the fact that it is possible to kill a great many defenseless prisoners through the use of poison gases like the pesticide Zyklon B. Nazi eugenics research consisted of studies by physicians such as Eugen Fischer, who measured the “racial purity” of various individuals by looking for “Negro blood” Julius Hallervorden, who studied the “feeble” brains of euthanasia victims; Robert Ritter, whose data were employed by the SS to dispatch Gypsies to Auschwitz; Ernst Rüdin, who helped draft a Nazi sterilization law aimed at preventing “genetically diseased” offspring; Otmar Von Verschuer, who campaigned for forced sterilization of the “mentally and morally subnormal” Ernst Wentzler, who coordinated a pediatric euthanasia program that killed thousands of children; Carl Clauberg, who sterilized women at Auschwitz; and Josef Mengele, who murdered Jews and Gypsies to study their organs. It scarcely need be added that their results were of no scientific value.
Yet many thinkers continue to overestimate the quality of Third Reich science. Some are dazzled by German technological achievements, such as the development of jet engines, proximity fuses, and infrared night-vision goggles—but technological applications can lag decades behind the scientific discoveries that made them possible. One way to separate scientific research from technological applications is by tallying the citations in leading scientific journals. Such studies indicate that German research tumbled into a dying fall once Hitler came into power. Initially the impetus of prior research carried it forward, with Rudolf Schoenheimer employing natural isotopes as radioactive tracers in the human body in 1935 and Otto Hahn splitting uranium atoms in 1938, but Germany’s scientific citations thereafter dwindle until the pages are almost blank. Five years into Hitler’s reign, the number of German scientific papers appearing in one leading international physics review had fallen from 30 to 16 percent of the total. Membership in the nation’s oldest national scientific organization, the Society of German Natural Researchers and Physicians, shrank from 6,884 in 1929 to 3,759 in 1937. There was no dramatic moment when storm troopers burst into the German research funding agency to cry “Halt!” to German science. “Instead,” notes the historian Ulrich Herbert, “contrary positions and voices were simply eliminated.”
The Nazis presided over a nuclear-physics brain drain of startling proportions. The computer pioneer John von Neumann departed for the United States in 1930—the same year that saw the emigration of Hans Bethe, who would help discover the nuclear processes that make the sun shine, and of Leo Szilard, who while soaking in his bath in a London hotel suddenly realized how a nuclear weapon could be made. (To keep the idea secret, Szilard patented it and assigned the patent to the British Admiralty; he then drafted a letter, which he had his friend Einstein sign, warning President Roosevelt that “it appears almost certain” that an atomic bomb could be built “in the immediate future.”) The quantum-physics virtuosos Max Born and Erwin Schrödinger fled, as did James Franck, who would help build the atomic bomb and then petition to have it demonstrated to the Japanese rather than being dropped on a city.
Hitler was untroubled by the scientific exodus. When a physicist tried to alert him to the corrosive effects that Nazi anti-Semitism was having on scientific research, Hitler reportedly replied, “If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years!” To direct the Reich Ministry for Science, Education and Popular Culture—which was chartered to “unify and control all of German science by the Reich both within and outside the universities [and manage] the control and methodical shaping of all of scientific life especially at the university”—Hitler named Bernhard Rust, a former provincial schoolmaster who had been dismissed for molesting a schoolgirl but had escaped prosecution on grounds of his documented mental illness. For Rust, the whole purpose of education was to create Nazis. When Rust asked David Hilbert whether the once great mathematics center at Göttingen had suffered from the expulsion of its Jewish faculty members, Hilbert replied, “Suffered? It hasn’t suffered, Minister. It doesn’t exist anymore!”
A few first-rate scientists did remain in Germany throughout the war. One of them was Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics—a patriot whose eldest son died fighting in World War I and whose second son was executed by the Gestapo for attempting to assassinate Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944. Planck noted that intellectual midgets were being promoted to the academic posts vacated by professors who had fled the Nazi regime or perished at its hands: “If today thirty professors get up and protest against the government, by tomorrow there will be also one hundred and fifty individuals declaring their solidarity with Hitler, simply because they’re after the jobs.” He took comfort in the objectivity of science. “The outside world is something independent from man, something absolute,” he wrote, “and the quest for the laws which apply to this absolute appeared to me as the most sublime scientific pursuit in life.” Another who stayed behind was Werner Heisenberg, discoverer of the uncertainty principle in quantum physics. Something of a Romantic, Heisenberg was given to long alpine walks and to the formulation of oracular queries like, “Why is the one reflected in the many, what is the reflector and what the reflected, why did not the one remain alone?” He thought of the war as a passing storm, upon the subsiding of which intellectuals like himself would restore German culture to its proper prominence. “I must be satisfied to oversee in the small field of science the values that must become important for the future,” Heisenberg wrote in 1935. “That is in this general chaos the only clear thing that is left for me to do. The world out there is really ugly, but the work is beautiful.”
Jewish scientists who remained in Germany were soon dismissed from their posts and in many cases liquidated. Among those who perished at the hands of the Nazis were the mathematicians Ludwig Berwald, who died in the Lodz Ghetto; Otto Blumenthal, killed in the “model” camp at There-sienstadt; Robert Remak, who died at Auschwitz; Stanislaw Saks and Juliusz Pawel Chauder, murdered by the Gestapo; and Paul Epstein and Felix Hausdorff, who committed suicide. The chemist Wilhelm Traube was beaten to death in his apartment by Gestapo agents. The physicist Lise Meitner, a Viennese Jew who along with her two sisters had converted to Christianity, worked on the prospect of nuclear fission in Berlin with Otto Hahn and the chemist Fritz Strassmann until the summer of 1938, when she slipped away to Sweden on an expired passport. Soon thereafter Hahn and Strassmann arrived at the fission results for which Hahn would win a Nobel Prize—a finding that prompted Niels Bohr to exclaim, “Oh, what idiots we have been! Oh but this is wonderful! We could have foreseen it all! This is just as it must be!” Although by escaping from Germany Meitner may have forfeited her share of the credit for the discovery, she blamed herself for not having departed sooner. “Today it is very clear to me that it was a grave moral fault not to leave Germany in 1933, since in effect by staying there I supported Hitlerism,” she wrote to Hahn, adding an unflinching indictment:
You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you tried to offer only a passive resistance. Certainly, to buy off your conscience you helped here and there a persecuted person, but millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered.
Meitner refused a 1943 offer to work in the Manhattan Project, declaring, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb.”
Ultimately, though, the decay of German science under the Nazis resulted not just from the brain drain and the harebrained ministrations of Hitler and his henchmen, but from fundamental differences in the way science operates under totalitarianism as opposed to liberalism. Science demands free, open discussion and publication, not only in order to circulate fresh information and ideas but to expose them to lively criticism. A totalitarian regime can afford little of either. Having seized a measure of power to which it has no legitimate claim, in order to solve real or imaginary problems that it cannot in fact solve, such a regime is highly vulnerable to criticism and so must stifle it. One way it accomplishes this, aside from jailing and murdering dissenters, is to create a cult of secrecy and power in which access to secrets is perceived as a source of power. Such vices are infectious, and the history of Nazi Germany is rife with examples of corporations and government agencies needlessly duplicating their R&D efforts by playing their cards too close to their chests.
The development of radar in Britain, essential to the Royal Air Force’s defeat of a Luftwaffe that had it outgunned four to one, demonstrated some of the differences between the way the Germans and the English governments interacted with their scientists in wartime. The theory of radar was simple—a radio pulse that strikes an airplane will bounce back and so reveal the plane’s location, even at night or under cloudy skies—and had been understood since the 1880s. Naturalists found acoustic analogues in dolphin and whales, which locate fish in the depths of the sea by pinging them with pulsed squeals of sound, and in bats that navigate inside ink-black caves by emitting high-pitched squeaks and mapping their echoes. The difficulties arose with implementation. Since radio waves travel at the velocity of light, a competent radar kit has to receive echoes arriving a fraction of a second after the pulse was emitted. And, since shorter wavelengths produce sharper resolution (which is why dolphin and bats use high-pitched sounds for echolocation), radar required microwave radio equipment that did not yet exist when the war began.
Overcoming these obstacles called for an openness to new ideas that was scarce in wartime Germany. The Nazis’ institutionalized paranoia produced a stovepipe array of mutually suspicious public agencies and private corporations, with university scientists—such as they were—largely excluded from radar work altogether. The effort was further retarded by the low quality of Nazi appointees—men like Ernst Udet, who knew next to nothing about science but was appointed technology chief of the Luftwaffe on the basis of his fame as a World War I flying ace, and who objected that if radar systems were deployed, “Flying won’t be fun anymore.”
In Britain, a young and little-known Scottish electrical engineer named Robert Watson-Watt—descended from James Watt—found a ready audience in the war ministry for the idea that radar could win the air war. In the summer of 1940, when German bombs were raining down on London on a nightly basis, Prime Minister Churchill took the advice of the scientist-inventor Henry Thomas Tizard and, overruling the security concerns voiced by his cabinet, authorized the dispatch of a steel box containing radar blueprints and a new microwave transmitter prototype across the Atlantic, to see if the American allies could help speed things along. The physicist John Cockroft purchased the box in a surplus store and took it on an unescorted Canadian ship, the Duchess of Richmond. (Always attentive to detail, he drilled holes in the box so that it would sink should the Duchess be torpedoed.) The navy men aboard asked for a lecture by the famous physicist. Wanting to stick to a subject that he felt certain would have no wartime use, Cockroft spoke on atomic energy, telling the sailors that theoretically, the nuclear energy in a cup of water could blow their ship out of the water. In America, Cockroft found that radar work was being pursued by a variety of ad hoc teams involving university scientists, government engineers, and even talented amateur scientists like the financier Alfred Loomis, who tested the world’s first Doppler-radar “speed gun” at his estate in Tuxedo Park, New York (one of his colleagues remarking, “Hey, don’t let the cops get a hold of that”). Loomis immediately grasped the importance of the British inventions to the imminent deployment of radar in the war, and put the new transmitter into production the next day.
Churchill took a personal interest in science, numbered top scientists among his friends, and understood the importance of free communications in developing new devices and tactics. There was “no time to proceed by ordinary channels in devising expedients,” he said, boasting that his military service ministers “stood on no ceremony…had the fullest information…and constant access to me,” and that “anyone in this circle could always speak his mind.” In his view the conflict was not
a war of masses of men hurling masses of shells at each other. It is by devising new weapons, and above all by scientific leadership, that we shall best cope with the enemy’s superior strength…. The multiplication of the high-class scientific personnel, as well as the training of those who will handle the new weapons and research work connected with them, should be the very spear-point of our thought and effort.
“Unless British science had proved superior to German,” Churchill later wrote, “we might well have been defeated, and, being defeated, destroyed.”
His seriousness on this point was evident to the young physicist Reginald Victor Jones, who had been researching the infrared spectrum of the sun when the war intervened. Appointed Britain’s first scientific intelligence officer at age twenty-eight, Jones investigated the possibility that the Germans were using intersecting radio beams to signal their pilots where to release their bombs. Summoned to a meeting at Ten Downing Street in June 1940, the young Jones suspected a practical joke, but instead found himself seated at a table where Britain’s top air force officers, with Churchill presiding, were discussing the German radio-beam puzzle. After listening for a while to their groping conversation, which to Jones “suggested that they had not fully grasped the situation,” he was asked by Churchill to clear up a technical point. Instead he said, “Would it help, sir, if I told you the story right from the start?” Churchill was startled but replied, after a moment of hesitation, “Well, yes it would!” Jones spoke for twenty minutes, explaining his research and urging that British pilots fly along the German beams for themselves to learn how they worked. Such flights began the following day. British engineers were soon jamming the Germans’ signals, a key step in ending the night-bombing raids and ultimately the Blitz—which had destroyed over a million homes, more than were consumed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Jones recalled of Churchill that “he valued science and technology at something approaching their true worth.”
This is not to say that the Allies were immune to the difficulties posed by bureaucratic opacity and conservatism—indeed British and American scientists often complained of just that—or that German scientists were never able to cut through red tape and get anything done. But on the whole, wartime scientific and technological development fared far better in the liberal democracies.
The failure of the Germans to develop nuclear weapons—a failure that surprised the Allies, who had invested in the Manhattan Project out of the quite sensible fear that the Nazis would otherwise get there first—also reflected the hobbled state of communications among the scientists and engineers involved. Historians differ sharply over whether Heisenberg, whom Hitler appointed to head up the German A-bomb project, deliberately let the project languish, but whatever his motives, his approach was a far cry from the egalitarian ethos of the Manhattan Project. Disinclined toward laboratory work, Heisenberg played Bach fugues on the chapel organ at Hechingen while his subordinates there conducted nuclear experiments with uranium, graphite, and heavy water. (“Had I never lived,” he mused dreamily, “someone else would probably have formulated the principle of indeterminacy; if Beethoven had never lived, no one would have written Opus 111.”) A similar insularity appears to have afflicted Walther Bothe, the eminent experimentalist whose mistaken calculation of the absorption characteristics of graphite led the German bomb project astray. Bothe, whose heart was not in the work anyway—the Nazis having hounded him over his antifascist political views so severely that he sought treatment in a sanatorium—concluded that graphite would not work as a neutron absorber in sustaining a nuclear chain reaction. Actually he was testing the wrong grade of graphite, but his results were taken at face value, leading German bomb scientists to conclude that only heavy water could do the job. This set them on a path that dead-ended once the Allies disabled the German heavy water plant at Vemork, Norway, in a series of raids conducted by Norwegian, French, and British commandos flown in on American bombers. A mistake like Bothe’s would have been unlikely to persist in the atmosphere of Los Alamos, where Gen. Leslie Groves had agreed to let the scientists work with their customary informality and ordinary engineers would have felt free to question an Oppenheimer about where he’d got his graphite.*
By the end of the war it was starkly evident that the Nazi campaign of top-down totalitarian science had failed. “In the early days of the war the world was amazed by the efficiency of the Nazi war machine,” wrote Needham, but “in every theater of war…the technology of the democracies has proved superior to that of the fascist powers.” Needham concluded that “the Axis powers have carried out a great social experiment. They have tested whether science can successfully be put at the service of authoritarian tyranny. The test has shown that it can not.”
Yet the notion persisted that totalitarianism was more efficient than liberal democracy. It was said that Mussolini had at least “made the trains run on time” (which as a matter of fact he did not) and that it must be more efficient to control science, technology, and industry via centralized planning. Adding to the confusion were the distortions created by a general reliance on a one-dimensional, left–right political spectrum. If you assume that the Nazis and the communists define the ends of the spectrum, and you’ve just fought a hideous war against the Nazis, it is easy to imagine that democracies will in the future evolve toward something like communism—whereas if you instead think in terms of a triangular relationship, you are more likely to see that communism is just as far removed from liberalism as the Nazis were. But this was not the mind-set of many postwar Europeans and Americans, for reasons dating back many decades.
Prior to the disaster of the two world wars, Europe was becoming politically liberal—by 1914, Russia and Turkey were the only thoroughgoing autocracies left in the region—and economically liberal enough that most Europeans were growing rapidly wealthier. But the wealth was not being equally shared, and with swelling masses of the working poor huddled in urban slums, the middle classes were tormented by two economic concerns—that their newfound wealth might be taken from them, and that they had no moral right to it in the first place. Some feared that the poor might vote to abrogate property rights altogether, others that unskilled workers sick of toiling in poverty would lobby to decouple merit from financial reward so that every laborer, regardless of his skill or diligence, got more or less the same wages. That all these fears should be realized—human rights overrun, property confiscated, and workers rewarded according to their needs rather than for their productivity—was precisely the communist prescription. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels knew what they were talking about when they declared, in the opening passage of the Communist Manifesto of 1847, “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.”
Not even Marx and Engels could foresee the extent to which communism would indeed come to haunt Europe and the world. Chiefly an enthusiasm of intellectuals and political opportunists, communism failed to capture the affection of the working masses whose interests it claimed to promote, yet came to rule a third of the world’s peoples. Marx and Engels talked about liberation, yet communism presided over the most craven sacrifices of liberty for the promise of material gain to have darkened human history. They described communism as a science, yet few more noxious assaults on science had ever been concocted.
Marx and Engels are easy enough to disdain. Innumerable crimes having since been committed in their names, it is possible today to take a certain grim satisfaction in reading that Marx neglected his family and that Engels campaigned against capitalism while living off the wealth that his father accrued as owner of a Manchester thread factory. But this is rather unfair. Marx was one among many radical philosophers and journalists in an age of revolutionary tumult, and his conduct was more that of an otherworldly scholar than of a scheming conspirator. And what may be said of Engels? A man born into wealth loses either way: He stands accused of complacency if he defends the existing regime, and of posturing if he objects to it. In financially supporting his friend Marx, and editing the two posthumous volumes of Capital following Marx’s death, Engels believed he was aiding a genius whose insights would liberate the poor. Neither man thought that communism, put into practice, would become an unbridled horror. But as it did, and was taken to be scientific, questions arise as to communism’s actual relationship to science and liberty.
Communist theory was inherently reactionary—a reaction against the brutalities of the early industrial era—and pseudoscientific, in that it pretended to be scientific while ignoring the need to test theories experimentally. Marx was stricken, as any right-minded individual would be, by the appalling lot of the working poor and by child labor in particular. Capital is rife with descriptions of children being
dragged from their squalid beds at two, three, or four o’clock in the morning, and compelled to work for a bare subsistence until ten, eleven, or twelve at night, their limbs wearing away, their frames dwindling, their faces whitening, and their humanity absolutely sinking into a stone-like torpor, utterly horrible to contemplate.
Engels, similarly affronted, recalled walking through the slums of Manchester with “a bourgeois” to whom he complained of
the frightful condition of the working people’s quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: “And yet there is a great deal of money made here: Good morning, sir.”
Communists regarded Engels’ middle-class companion as the villain of the piece, yet capitalism and liberal democracy went on to alleviate the privations of far more working people than communism ever did. Liberalism proved to be empirical enough to address the plight of the working poor, while communism—an absolutist philosophy, equal parts religion and pseudoscience—was too inflexible to respond to much of anything.
Engels thought of Marx, who admired Darwin, as a scientific thinker of Darwinian stature. “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history,” he said at Marx’s funeral, adding that in his opinion, Marx had been “the greatest living thinker.” And indeed, Marx in his Capital, a book sprinkled with references to mathematics, geometry, and chemistry, claimed to have identified “natural laws” of history that move “with iron necessity toward inevitable results.” According to the allegedly inexorable workings of these laws, capital in proportion to production was destined to increase, profits and wages to decrease, and capitalist states to polarize into two cliques—wealthy capitalists on top, a seething mass of impoverished proletarians below—whereupon capitalism would succumb to socialistic revolution. All this sounded Darwinian to those only vaguely familiar with Darwin, as were Marx and Engels. In fact, Darwinian evolution has no inevitable or even foreseeable direction. Evolutionary biologists can make only weak, tentative predictions about such rudimentary matters as whether a given bacterium is likely to survive in a lab rat’s intestinal tract, much less about the destiny of economic and political institutions. Had Marx comprehended this he might have made more modest claims, and accompanied them with suggestions as to how communists could monitor the results of their social experiments and adjust their theories accordingly. Instead, he was long on what must be done to establish a communist society but short on how, once property had been abolished and the state had withered away, that society would actually operate: Marx’s communist world was as ethereal as a Christian’s heaven. Yet this very insubstantiality appealed to middlebrow thinkers seeking personal salvation through political revolution. As Michael Polanyi observed, Marxism
predicted that historic necessity would destroy an antiquated form of society and replace it by a new one, in which the existing miseries and injustices would be eliminated. Though this prospect was put forward as a purely scientific observation, it endowed those who accepted it with a feeling of overwhelming moral superiority.