Hayek's Road to Serfdom, the anti-Renassance Nazis, and individualism

by John MacBeath Watkins

In The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek says that the Nazis were anti-Renaissance because they were anti-individualist. This fits with the theory of the book, which is that collectivists of all stripes are authoritarian.

But it doesn't fit terribly well with Nazi ideology. The Renaissance, and even more so the Enlightenment, represented the rise of reason as a more legitimate source of truth than faith and tradition. It was this that gave rise to modernism, as well as liberalism.

The Nazis were believers in the doctrine of "Blut und Boden" (Blood and Soil), meaning that the place of their birth, their race and their culture were more important than reason in telling them who they were.

German blood ran through the soil, German culture was tied to the blood and the soil. It was anti-individualist, but this was because it was anti-modernist. Marxism, by contrast, was anti-individualist, but modernist. Marxism was internationalist, and claimed to be the ultimate expression of reason applied to how a society was formed. While Nazis twisted the theory of evolution to support their theories about race, it was old-fashioned chauvinism and racism dressed up to look like reason. Nazism's stress on blood was a return to the tribal form of unity, which doesn't fit well with Hayek's contention that totalitarianism grows from regulatory ideas like planning.

Nazism wasn't an evolution of the ideas of social democrats, it was opposed from the first to democracy. They believed that some were born to lead, others to follow, and the great leader should be able to rule by decree, a philosophy the Germans called Führerprinzip. The biological determinacy of blood was really not about natural selection, it was about that old remnant of Germany's aristocratic past, good breeding. And breeding is the opposite of natural selection, as we discussed in this post. I suppose one could relate it through planning in the sense that Plato's Republic was about planning. After all, Plato favored a form of eugenics for the well-being of society, but he was certainly not the ancestor of Nazism. The notion of blood and soil was antithetical to his application of reason to structuring a society.

The problem here is that not all forms of collectivism are the same, and not all are evolutions of planning. I think Hayek misreads the nature of the authoritarian instinct in trying to trace it to forms of regulation that are not in themselves authoritarian. As a businessman, I cannot bring myself to like planners, and I can imagine some of them becoming authoritarian tools for authoritarian masters. More often, they are dithering tools for dithering masters, and a dithering tool impinges on my freedom not because they wish to be authoritarian, but because they wish to avoid conflict between clashing interests. This is the unfreedom of the social contract, not the tyranny of the strong leader.

My posts on Hayek, by the way, are here: