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How the State Became Immaculate, Part 2


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Hegel’s deified state doctrine found vigorous proponents in Britain. According to Oxford professor T.H. Green,

It is not supreme coercive power, simply as such, but supreme coercive power exercised in a certain way and for certain ends, that makes a State, viz., exercised according to law, written or customary, and for the maintenance of rights.

Thus, a true state could never violate a citizen’s rights; therefore, a state is automatically trustworthy — or else it would not be a state. Oxford Professor David Ritchie wrote in 1891:

The State has, as its end, the realization of the best life by the individual. The best life can only be realized in an organized society — i.e., in the State; so that the State is not a mere means to individual welfare; in a way, the State is an end to itself.

Oxford professor Bernard Bosanquet in 1912 urged readers to recognize that “the State is a name for a special form of self-transcendence, in which individuality strongly anticipates the character of its perfection.”

Bosanquet wrote,

It is such a ’real’ or rational will that thinkers after Rousseau have identified with the State…. The idea is that in [the State], or by its help, we find at once discipline and expansion, the transfiguration of partial impulses, and something to do and to care for, such as the nature of a human self demands.

In other words, subservience to politicians and bureaucratic regimes is necessary for the fulfillment of man’s inner self. As Harvard University historian Adam Ulam noted in 1951,

Modern idealism in its most representative modern spokesman becomes … worship of the State. The church of the Middle Ages reappears in a new guise and the modern State is endowed with powers and significance in consequence of man’s fallen status.

Even the carnage of the First World War did not oust the state from its intellectual pedestal. German philosopher Ernst Troeltsch, writing in 1916, praised the “state mysticism” that “has created all that is great in the past German century.” University of London professor L.T. Hobhouse observed in 1918,

As a fashionable academic philosophy, genuine Hegelianism … the doctrine of the State as an incarnation of the Absolute, a super-personality which absorbs the real living personality of men and women, has in many quarters achieved the position of an academic orthodoxy.

British professor A.R. Wadia, writing in a 1921 article entitled “The State under a Shadow,” argued that the citizen has a duty to perceive the state — or, rather, to imagine the state — in the best possible light and always to presume that the state is innocent, regardless of how many million people it has killed. Even two decades after the start of the First World War — and after the collapse of democracies across central and Eastern Europe — Harold Laski considered the “idealist theory of the state” to be “the most widely accepted [theory of the State] at the present time.”

The cult of the state helped pave the way for the triumph of fascism. Guido de Ruggiero, author of the 1927 book History of European Liberalism, proclaimed that “the State, organ of compulsion par excellence, has become the highest expression of freedom.” The ultimate result of idealizing the state was to vest vast power in the hands of idealists such as Mussolini and Hitler. Political scientist Carl J. Friedrich, writing in 1939, noted that the idea of “the ’State’ as some kind of neutral god charged with looking after the national interest is … central in all dictatorial ideologies” spreading across Europe. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared in 1932,

The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State.

Professor Carmen Haider, writing in 1933, noted, “The Fascists draw their right of government control from the theory of the superiority of the State…. From it flow the principles of authority, hierarchy, discipline and control.” The state became portrayed as the equivalent of Nietzsche’s Superman, exempt from traditional rules of good and evil. Yet this was a parody of Nietzsche, who saved his sharpest contempt for the state, declaring that “whatever it says it lies; and whatever it has it has stolen…. It even bites with stolen teeth.”

The Soviet “experiment”

Academics, politicians, and others habitually ignored or understated the coercive nature of government throughout the 20th century. John Maynard Keynes hailed the Soviet Union in a 1936 radio interview as “engaged in a vast administrative task of making a completely new set of social and economic institutions work smoothly and successfully.” American churchman Sherwood Eddy wrote in 1934 that in Russia “all life is … directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation…. It releases a flood of joyous and strenuous activity.” American philosopher John Dewey visited the Soviet Union and proclaimed upon his return, “The people go about as if some mighty, oppressive load had been removed, as if they were newly awakened to the consciousness of released energies.”

While Western intellectuals painted the Soviet Union as a utopia, some communists had fewer illusions. In 1928 Grigori Pyatakov, one of six Soviet leaders personally named in Lenin’s last testament, proudly declared,

According to Lenin the Communist Party is based on the principle of coercion which doesn’t recognize any limitations or inhibitions. And the central idea of this principle of boundless coercion is not coercion by itself but the absence of any limitation whatsoever — moral, political, and even physical. Such a Party is capable of achieving miracles….

Pyatakov was one of the stars of the 1937 Moscow show trials, confessing to ludicrous charges of sabotaging mines in Siberia, and was executed shortly thereafter. Professor Virgil Michel, writing in 1939, noted, “Up to the very recent Russian developments, Bolshevistic communism was by some liberals openly championed as the only source of hope for liberalism in the modern world.”

After 1945, the Soviet Union brutally suppressed any resistance in the Eastern European nations that its armies had overrun. Yet, as Ulam noted in his biography of Stalin, “Truman in his 1948 campaign said that he liked Uncle Joe, but alas, that Stalin was a prisoner of the Politburo.” Jean-Paul Sartre, France’s most respected postwar philosopher, declared, “Soviet citizens criticize their government much more and more effectively than we do. There is total freedom of criticism in the USSR.”

Members of the American Political Science Association in 1978 voted to cancel contracts for their annual conference in Chicago the following year to protest the fact that Illinois had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment — at the same time they voted in favor of sending delegates to an International Political Science Association meeting in Moscow.

After controversy erupted in France in 1997 over a book on how communist regimes had killed up to 100 million of their own citizens, a French Communist Party spokesman sought to differentiate Stalin and other communist leaders from Hitler: “Agreed, both Nazis and communists killed. But while the Nazis killed from hatred of humanity, the communists killed from love.”

Statism in America

The idealist concept of the state initially faced rough sledding in the United States because it clashed with American experience. Mark Twain bragged that American legislators brought the highest prices of any legislators in the world. Though government employees began agitating for special pensions near the turn of the century, a congressional committee report noted that their effort got nowhere because many Americans were convinced “public service was a refuge for un-employables.” In a 1921 speech, James Reed, a Republican senator from Utah, denigrated people who came to Washington to become federal employees: “Examine in 99 cases out of 100 and you will find that they are failures and could not make a living at home.”

However, in the same period, the state was being championed as the great hope for American redemption. “The Best Shall Serve the State” was the motto of the Massachusetts Civil Service Reform Association. Philosopher William James, in his 1910 essay entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War,” proclaimed his belief in the “gradual advent of some sort of a socialistic equilibrium” and declaimed that moral progress could come from government de facto ownership of the citizens: “We should be owned, as soldiers are by the army, and our pride would rise accordingly…. All the qualities of a man acquire dignity when he knows that the service of the collectivity that owns him needs them.” (James, like many intellectuals glorifying the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s, avoided military service during the Civil War.)

Herbert Croly, a Progressive author who heavily influenced Theodore Roosevelt, had boundless faith in government: “While it is true that an active state can make serious and perhaps enduring mistakes, inaction and irresponsibility are more costly and dangerous than intelligent and responsible interference.” Croly proclaimed in 1909 that national life should be a “school,” and that “the exigencies of such schooling frequently demand severe coercive measures, but what schooling does not?” Croly also informed his fellow citizens that “a people are saved many costly perversions” if “the official schoolmasters are wise, and the pupils neither truant nor insubordinate.”

President Wilson declared that Americans should “marry our interests to the State.” Prof. Charles Haines argued that, rather than limit government power, “the American people should establish governments on a theory of trust in men in public affairs.” Haines surveyed American history and essentially concluded that damage control should be disregarded in designing political institutions.

John Dewey stressed in 1916, “No ends are accomplished without the use of force. It is consequently no presumption against a measure, political, international, economic, that it involves a use of force.” Dewey, who had boundless faith in government power, declared that “squeamishness about [the use of] force is the mark not of idealistic but of moonstruck morals.” Dewey enunciated a standard that would be widely used in subsequent decades to justify the expansion of government power: “Force becomes rational when it is an organized factor in an activity instead of operating in an isolated way or on its own hook.”

Thus, as long as government officials claim to be well organized, force must be presumed to be rational, and thus superior to the “anarchy” of individual freedom. Yale law professor Thurman Arnold, later appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to be the nation’s chief antitrust enforcer, declared that Americans needed “a religion of government.”

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.