I am reading The Logic of Liberty by Michael Polanyi, which - quite surprisingly to me - turns out to be the source from which Hayek has received some of his best ideas, most notably the concept of spontaneous order.
I. Liberty and Contingencies
In the present post, however, I wish to dwell on a chapter ("Perils of Inconsistency") in the above book, in which Polanyi casts light on the roots of the totalitarian catastrophes of the 20th century. It holds another surprise to me, as Polanyi traces a striking linkage between the doctrine of liberty and the totalitarian ideologies of communism, fascism and Nazism.
Phrasing can make a big difference. While one could say, as Polanyi does, only with substantial license though, that totalitarianism has its roots in liberalism, it is less misleading to emphasise what he calls "moral inversion", i.e. the process by which certain basic suppositions of the earliest liberals have - thanks to certain peculiarities of European history - become "morally inverted" so as to give rise to the totalitarian mind set.
Contrary to Polanyi, I insist that in no way would one be justified in ascribing to liberalism responsibility for the emergence of totalitarianism; but the Polanyian link between the two does tell us something about the contingencies that liberal thought may help trigger. No one has full control over the way in which freedom and her underlying intellectual visions ultimately play out in history.
Here is Michael Polanyi's fascinating story.
II. The Totalitarian Metamorphosis of the Liberal Impetus
Writes Michael Polanyi:
Liberalism was motivated, to start with, by detestation of religious fanaticism. It appealed to reason for a cessation of religious strife. This desire to curb religious violence was the prime motif of liberalism both in the Anglo-American and in the Continental area.
(Polanyi, M. (1998), The Logic of Liberty, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund Inc, p.116 - emphasis added)
However, there appeared momentous differences between the two geo-cultural areas. First, let us look at the Anglo-American sphere:
Anglo-American liberalism was first formulated by Milton and Locke. Their argument for freedom of thought was twofold. In its first part (for which we may quote the Areopagitica) freedom from authority is demanded, so that truth may be discovered. The main inspiration of this movement was the struggle of the natural sciences against the authority of Aristotle. Its programme was to let everyone state his beliefs, and to allow people to listen and form their own opinion; the ideas which would prevail in a free and open battle of wits would be as close an approximation to the truth as can be humanly achieved.
We may call this the anti-authoritarian formula of liberty.
Closely related to it is the second half of the argument for liberty, which is based on philosophic doubt. While its origins go back a long way (right to the philosophers of antiquity) this argument was first formulated as a political doctrine by Locke. It says simply that we can never be so sure of the truth in matters of religion as to warrant the imposition of our views on others. These two pleas for freedom of thought were put forward and were accepted by England at a time when religious beliefs were unshaken and indeed dominant throughout the nation.
The new tolerance aimed pre-eminently at the reconciliation of the different denominations in the service of God. Atheists were refused tolerance by Locke, as socially unreliable.
(Ibid. p. 117 - emphasis added)
The Continental context was rather different:
On the Continent , the twofold doctrine of free thought - anti-authoritarianism and philosophic doubt - gained ascendency somewhat later than in England and moved on straightaway to a more extreme position. This was first effectively formulated in the eighteenth century by the philosophy of Enlightenment, which was primarily an attack on religious authority and particularly on the Catholic Church.
(Ibid. p. 117 - emphasis added)
Michael Polanyi describes his central thesis in this way:
I have said that I consider the collapse of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe as the outcome of an internal contradiction in the doctrine of liberty. Wherein lies this inconsistency? Why did it destroy freedom in large parts of Continental Europe, and has not had similar effects so far in the Western or Anglo-American area of our civilization?
Ibid. p. 120
Find out about the denouement in the second part: Liberty and Totalitarianism - Michael Polanyi (2/3) - The Moral Inversion of Liberalism.