Why don't we learn from history?

Part II: Government and freedom

B. H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970)


Blindfolded authority

All of us do foolish things—but the wiser realize what they do. The most dangerous error is failure to recognize our own tendency to error. That failure is a common affliction of authority.

From many examples may be cited one from World War I. When reports percolated to Paris about the neglected state of the Verdun defenses Joffre was asked for an assurance that they would be improved. In reply he indignantly denied that there was any cause for anxiety and demanded the names of those who had dared to suggest it: “I cannot be a party to soldiers under my command bringing before the Government, by channels other than the hierarchic channel, complaints or protests about the execution of my orders…. It is calculated to disturb profoundly the spirit of discipline in the Army.”

That reply might well be framed and hung up in all the bureaus of officialdom the world over—to serve as the mummy at the feast. For within two months his doctrine of infallibility collapsed like a punctured balloon, with tragic effects for his army. But here, as so often happens, personal retribution was slow and ironical in its course. The man who had given warning was to be one of the first victims of its neglect, while Joffre for a time gained fresh popular laurels from the heroic sacrifice by which complete disaster was averted.

The pretense to infallibility is instinctive in a hierarchy. But to understand the cause is not to underrate the harm that the pretense has produced—in every sphere.

We learn from history that the critics of authority have always been rebuked in self-righteous tones—if no worse fate has befallen them—yet have repeatedly been justified by history. To be “agin the Government” may be a more philosophic attitude than it appears. For the tendency of all “governments” is to infringe the standards of decency and truth—this is inherent in their nature and hardly avoidable in their practice.

Hence the duty of the good citizen who is free from the responsibility of Government is to be a watchdog upon it, lest Government impair the fundamental objects which it exists to serve. It is a necessary evil, thus requiring constant watchfulness and check.

Restraints of democracy

We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the “conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.” Thereby, this system of government tends to result in the triumph of mediocrity—and entails the exclusion of first-rate ability, if this is combined with honesty. But the alternative to it, despotism, almost inevitably means the triumph of stupidity. And of the two evils, the former is the less.

Hence it is better that ability should consent to its own sacrifice, and subordination to the regime of mediocrity, rather than assist in establishing a regime where, in the light of past experience, brute stupidity will be enthroned and ability may preserve its footing only at the price of dishonesty.

What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom—the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority—and of harmonizing this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency's sake, is betraying the vital tradition.

The experience of the two-party system developed in English politics, and transplanted across the ocean, continued long enough to show its practical superiority, whatever its theoretical drawbacks, to any other system of government that has yet been tried. I cannot see that socialism (in the “true” sense of the term) can be attained and made secure without tending to its logical end, the totalitarian state. It is not productive basically of a good or an efficient community. In England, at any rate, it has carried on, and no more, the improvement of the conditions of the “underdog” that was developed, above all, by Lloyd George.

Power politics in a democracy

The part that power plays in relations between nations is coming to be better understood and more generally recognized than it was in a more optimistic period. The term “power politics” is now in such common usage as to represent an admission of reality. But there is still a lack of public understanding as to where power lies and how it is exercised within a nation.

In a democratic system, power is entrusted to committees. These are the main organs of the body politic on all levels, from local councils up to the highest committees of Government. But the process by which decisions are reached is very different in reality from what is conceived in constitutional theory. Moreover, issues are apt to be powerfully influenced by factors which have no relation to principles and of which theory takes little account.

While committee meetings are not so frequently held in the late afternoon as in the morning, dinner itself provides both an opportunity and an atmosphere suited to the informal kind of committee that tends to be more influential than those which are formally constituted. The informal type is usually small, and the smaller it is the more influential it may be. The “two or three gathered together” may outweigh a formal committee of twenty or thirty members—to which it may often be related “under the blanket,” where it is assembled by someone who has a leading voice in the larger official committee. For it will represent his personal selection in the way of consultants, and, its members being chosen for their congeniality as well as for for their advisory value, it is likely to reach clear-cut conclusions, which in turn may be translated into the decisions of a formal committee.

For in any gathering of twenty or thirty men there is likely to be so much diversity and nebulosity of views that the consent of the majority can generally be gained for any conclusion that is sufficiently definite, impressively backed by well-considered arguments, and sponsored by a heavyweight member—especially if the presentation is carefully stage-managed.

The most significant example of this dinner-table influence is to be found on the highest level, which in Britain is the Cabinet. This first became apparent to me years ago when I happened to know rather closely two men who held the office of Secretary of State for the same department in successive Governments and found that while the first dined with the Prime Minister only occasionally, and then usually at rather large dinner parties, the second dined with the Prime Minister every few days, either alone or with only one or two other intimate friends present. Then I noticed the difference between the “deal” which the department received in the one case compared with the other and also the way that the second man influenced Government decisions on many matters outside his own departmental sphere. Later observation brought more indications to the same effect.

The “Sea Lords” of the Admiralty played a large part at the dinner tables of London society before World War II. That “dining out” power weighed more than any weapon power in securing for the Navy the largest share of the national defense budget—although less successful in fending off the interference of the German Air Force when war came. Across the dinner table before the war they were always confident that battleships could operate without serious risk from air attack, but when the test came, in war, they were compelled to revise their opinion after suffering heavy losses.

The Cabinet in England is in constitutional theory the decisive organ of the state—the brain of the national body. But it is a big committee—too big to be really effective as a source of decisions. A realization of that fact has led to repeated efforts toward a reduction of its size. Most of these efforts have resulted in no more than a paring down of numbers, in order to keep the membership nearer the figure of twenty than thirty. Those minor reductions could make no essential difference. A committee of twenty is no better than a committee of thirty for the airing of views, while in either case the decisions are almost bound to be guided by conclusions previously formulated in a smaller circle. The nearest approach to an effective organ was the “War Cabinet” of five which Lloyd George formed in 1917 to deal with the critical situation then existing. It was a Cabinet within a Cabinet. The system was reintroduced by Churchill in World War II.

There is always an “Inner Cabinet,” but usually it has no official constitution and might be more aptly described as an “Intimate Cabinet.” It is a fluid body. It may comprise those members of the actual Cabinet on whom the Prime Minister mainly relies or considers it essential to consult. But it may include men who have no ministerial position. For its constituent elements depend on the Prime Minister's judgment, and choice, of the men whose opinions are most helpful and stimulating to him. The essential condition of membership is intimacy, not status.

In the private discussions of this small circle matters of high policy are debated and decisions often crystallized in advance of a Cabinet meeting—which may, in effect, be no more than a means of ratifying them. Such a procedure may appear unconstitutional, yet it is quite proper so long as the Prime Minister subsequently explains his proposals to his Cabinet colleagues at one of these formal meetings and secures their endorsement. That is rarely difficult, because of the Prime Minister's natural ascendancy in the Cabinet, coupled with his initial advantage in having his arguments already prepared.

The more powerful his own personality, as a reinforcement to his status, the more easily he can procure a smooth passage for his proposals. If he anticipates a difficulty, he can often forestall it by a preliminary talk in private with the most weighty of his colleagues. In most cases he can reckon on the acquiescence of the bulk of them in any course that he propounds. A Prime Minister who comes to a Cabinet meeting with his mind made up, and a plan thought out, is not likely to be thwarted, nor even seriously opposed. All that is quite natural and quite in order.

In a realistic view, the important links in the chain of causation are the earlier ones—the influence which led the Prime Minister to make up his mind. There lies the significance of his intimate circle of consultants, with whom he is accustomed to discuss affairs and from whom he draws ideas. They, together with the Prime Minister, are the real molders of policy.

Besides being his private advisers, they often act as a discreet intelligence and liaison service. They may be used to carry out confidential inquiries and keep him in touch with what other people are thinking. They may also be entrusted with delicate missions at home or abroad, to take soundings prior to any official approach.

In the various departments a similar process could be traced, especially in those where power ostensibly rests with a council. Major matters that came before the Board of Admiralty, the Army Council, or the Air Council had often in reality been decided beforehand in private discussion between the Minister and the chief service members or the Permanent Secretary. But where the minister was a strong personality with a mind of his own, he might be more inclined to formulate his own policy with the help of one or more intimate advisers on whom he relied to provide him with a detached and disinterested opinion.

That practice merely repeats what is constantly seen in the business world, where the chairman of a company is apt to be more influenced by one or two individuals than by the collective mind of the directors who consider the policy presented to them. In matters of policy a board meeting may modify as well as ratify, but of its nature it is not suited to originate.

Men behind the scenes

The “intimate advisers” of a Prime Minister, a President, or, in turn, of a departmental head rarely become known to the public in that capacity, though their influence may be guessed, discussed, and criticized in the higher official circles. When they are already well known in their own right, they are often more handicapped—since their influence is apt to excite more suspicion and jealousy. That handicap applies not only to outside advisers but also, and even more, to such advisers as hold ministerial offices or Civil Service posts below the top level.

Before and early in World War I one of the most widely influential intimate advisers was Lord Esher. He never held high office, but achieved a record in the number of offers he declined—including the offices of Secretary of State for War and Viceroy of India. He derived much of his back-stage influence from the extent to which he was in the confidence of King Edward VII and King George V in turn, as well as of leading ministers. Another notable veiled figure of that period was J. A. Spender, the editor of the Westminster Gazette. It was often remarked that the news columns of his paper were strangely backward in anticipating developments—the explanation being that he himself was so closely in the confidence of the Prime Minister that his knowledge of what was going to happen became a stifling gag on his power to fulfill his editorial function.

At the time of the second Labor Government Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, had an influence on the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, much greater than his Cabinet position and extending into spheres beyond the limits of his departmental office. After Thomson was killed in the disaster to the airship R.101, John Buchan became an intimate adviser of Ramsay MacDonald and a link with the leader of the Conservative party, Stanley Baldwin in the coalition period. After Baldwin again became Prime Minister, the personal association between him and Mr. J. C. G. Davidson appeared to become an important factor in shaping Government policy. In the last two years of Mr. Baldwin's regime, Sir Horace Wilson, who had been chief industrial adviser since 1930, was “seconded to the Treasury for service with the Prime Minister.” He acquired still greater influence when Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937—and exercised it over the whole field of policy, including foreign affairs. Ministers frequently complained that they were unable to see the Prime Minister on important matters but had to put them through to Sir Horace Wilson and get decisions that way.

When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 the importance of Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook in his counsels became widely known. He also brought with him Professor Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, whose advisory position was regularized by the official announcement of his appointment as the Prime Minister's “personal assistant.” Major Desmond Morton was another.

Though the practical value of such intimate advisers has become increasingly accepted, they have remained more in the background in Britain than in the United States. There, during World War I, Edward M. House was much more than the right hand of President Wilson; he was the “other half,” and although he never held office he often deputized for the President at inter-Allied conferences. In World War II, Harry Hopkins played almost as big a part as President Roosevelt's representative, as well as his most intimate and constant adviser.

Pattern of dictatorship

We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern.

In gaining power:

On gaining power:

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.

The psychology of dictatorship

We learn from history that time does little to alter the psychology of dictatorship. The effect of power on the mind of the man who possesses it, especially when he has gained it by successful aggression, tends to be remarkably similar in every age and in every country.

It is worthwhile to retrace the course of Napoleon's Russian campaign—not so much for the detail of operations, but as an object lesson in the workings of a dictator's mind. For this purpose we can profit, in particular, from a study of the memoirs of Caulaincourt, who not only took part in the march to Moscow but was Napoleon's chosen companion on the journey back, after Napoleon had left his army to its fate.

The adventure which undermined Napoleon's domination of Europe and brought his New Order crashing to the ground was directly due to his mingled dissatisfaction and uneasiness over Russia's attitude toward his plans for subduing England—the last obstacle to his path to world domination. In Napoleon's eyes, the Czar's attempt to moderate the burden of the Continental system appeared the thin edge of a wedge that would disjoint the lever on which he was relying to weaken England's stubborn refusal to negotiate.

Although Napoleon had himself permitted modifications in the system where it happened to pinch the French, he expected his allies, as well as the occupied countries, to put up with privations without mitigation—in his interest. And in rigid fulfillment of that fundamentally irrational logic he now took the decision to impose his will on Russia by force of arms. He decided on this course against the advice of his closest and wisest counselors.

By the middle of June 1812 he had assembled an army of 450,000 men—a vast size for those times—on the Russian frontier between the Baltic Sea and the Pripet Marshes. At ten o'clock on the night of June 23 the pontoon detachments threw their bridges across the Niemen and the crossing began. Napoleon's mood was expressed in his remark to Caulaincourt: “In less than two months' time, Russia will be suing for peace.”

On approaching Vilna, Napoleon found that the Russians had abandoned the city. “It was truly heartbreaking for him to have to give up all hope of a great battle before Vilna and he voiced his bitterness by crying out upon the cowardice of his foes.”

After five weeks' campaigning, despite his deep advance, he had inflicted little damage on the enemy, while his own army had been reduced by at least a third in numbers and still more in efficiency.

As Caulaincourt tells us: “He believed there would be battle because he wanted one, and he believed that he should win it, because it was essential that he should.” So he was led to advance on Smolensk. On entering the charred and deserted city, Napoleon gained a fresh access of confidence, declaring: “Before a month is out, we shall be in Moscow; in six weeks we shall have peace.”

On September 14 Napoleon reached Moscow and found that the Russians had evacuated the city. That evening fire broke out in many quarters, and the greater part of the city was soon in flames.

This destruction of Moscow by the Russians sobered Napoleon. He became anxious to seek any chance of peace. But he was still incapable of understanding the bitterness he had aroused. As a result he prolonged his stay in burnt-out Moscow in the misplaced hope that the Russians would the more quickly respond to his overtures. Instead, these were regarded, rightly, as evidence of his growing embarrassment. On October 25 he reluctantly gave orders to begin the march back to Smolensk.

By the time Smolensk was reached, on November 9, the army had shrunk to a bare 50,000. On reaching the Beresina the army barely escaped complete disaster, and after reaching Smorgoni Napoleon decided to leave his army and dash back to Paris, to raise fresh forces and to be on the spot where his presence would restore confidence when the news of the disastrous end of the Russian campaign reached the people of France—and the watchful capitals of conquered Europe.

He talked at length of the defects and deficiencies of his various assistants, and on one of them, Talleyrand, he made a comment that cast its shadow nearer home: “Once you've behaved like a knave, you must never behave like a fool.”

To the unromantic historian, Napoleon is more of a knave than a hero. But to the philosopher, he is even more of a fool than a knave. His folly was shown in the ambition he conceived and the goal he pursued, while his frustration was ensured by his capacity to fool himself. Yet the reflection remains that such a fool and his devastating folly are largely the creation of smaller, if better, fools. So great is the fascination of romantic folly!

We learn that when Napoleon visited the bivouacs of his frozen and starving soldiers—before he left them—he “passed through the crowds of these unfortunates without a murmur being heard. They blamed the weather and uttered not a word of reproach about the pursuit of glory.” And in the end he went back home in comparative comfort to receive the congratulations of his subjects on his safe return and to collect among them fresh reserves of cannon fodder with which to set out afresh on the pursuit of glory.

Almost exactly 129 years after Napoleon launched his invasion of Russia, Hitler began his attack on Russia—on June 22, 1941. Despite the revolutionary changes which had taken place in the interval he was to provide a tragic demonstration of the truth that mankind, and least of all its “great men,” do not learn from history.

The basic flaw in dictatorship

It would be untruthful not to recognize that authoritarian regimes, such as Napoleon's, have produced some good fruits. They are to be found in both the material and the spiritual fields. Many social reforms and practical improvements have been carried out in a few years which a democracy would have debated for generations. A dictator's interest and support may be won for public works, artistic activities, and archaeological explorations in which a parliamentary government would not be interested—because they promise no votes.

It is also to the credit of the totalitarian systems that they have stimulated service to the community and the sense of comradeship—up to a point. In this respect their effect on a nation is like that of war. And, as in war, the quick-ripening good fellowship of the powerless many is apt to obscure the intrigues of the powerful few, the withering of the roots in such a soil, and the gradual decay of the tree. Bad means lead to no good end.

Their own declarations of faith are the truest test of the authoritarian regimes. In weighing the wrongs there is no need to argue over particular cases—which the victims assert and they often deny—because they proudly avow an attitude which makes such instances inherently probable.

It is man's power of thought which has generated the current of human progress through the ages. Thus the thinking man must be against authoritarianism in any form—because it shows its fear of thoughts which do not suit momentary authority.

Any sincere writer must be against it—because it believes in censorship.

Any true historian must be against it—because he can see that it leads to the repetition of old follies, as well as to the deliberate adulteration of history.

Anyone who tries to solve problems scientifically must be against it—since it refuses to recognize that criticism is the life blood of science.

In sum, any seeker of truth must be against it—because it subordinates truth to state expediency. This spells stagnation.

But “anti-Fascism” or “anti-Communism” is not enough. Nor is even the defense of freedom. What has been gained may not be maintained, against invasion without and erosion within, if we are content to stand still. The peoples who are partially free as a result of what their forebears achieved in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries must continue to spread the gospel of freedom and work for the extension of the conditions, social and economic as well as political, which are essential to make men free.

Disturbing trends

Looking at the situation today in Britain, America, and other democratic countries, compared with the past, and from a more detached point of view, it seems to me that, while there has been an improvement in some respects, handicaps have increased in other ways—and on balance these may be worse.

One factor is an excessive growth of “security-mindedness,” more bureaucratic than realistic, so that it is often carried to ludicrous extremes. It is certainly more difficult for Parliament (or Congress) to acquire the knowledge on which to base useful comment on defense matters. Another factor, related to the first, is the growth of “P.R.-mindedness”—and this particularly affects comment by serving officers.

The articles that [Major General J. F. C.] Fuller wrote about existing defects and new developments often caused trouble in the War Office and earned us disfavor—but officialdom stopped short of forbidding publication. Now the heretical ideas we expressed have become orthodox—but anyone who attempted a fresh bound in ideas and a fresh look into the future might find it more difficult to obtain permission to publish such ideas—or criticism of the existing doctrine.

The fallacy of compulsion

We learn from history that the compulsory principle always breaks down in practice. It is practicable to prevent men doing something; moreover that principle of restraint, or regulation, is essentially justifiable in so far as its application is needed to check interference with others' freedom. But it is not, in reality, possible to make men do something without risking more than is gained from the compelled effort. The method may appear practicable, because it often works when applied to those who are merely hesitant. When applied to those who are definitely unwilling it fails, however, because it generates friction and fosters subtle forms of evasion that spoil the effect which is sought. The test of whether a principle works is to be found in the product.

Efficiency springs from enthusiasm—because this alone can develop a dynamic impulse. Enthusiasm is incompatible with compulsion—because it is essentially spontaneous. Compulsion is thus bound to deaden enthusiasm—because it dries up the source. The more an individual, or a nation, has been accustomed to freedom, the more deadening will be the effect of a change to compulsion.

Many years spent in the study of war, a study which gradually went beyond its current technique to its wellsprings, changed my earlier and conventional belief in the value of conscription. It brought me to see that the compulsory principle was fundamentally inefficient and the conscriptive method out of date—a method that clung, like the ivy, to quantitative standards in an age when the trend of warfare was becoming increasingly qualitative. For it sustained the fetish of mere numbers at a time when skill and enthusiasm were becoming ever more necessary for the effective handling of the new weapons.

Conscription does not fit the conditions of modern warfare—its specialized technical equipment, mobile operations, and fluid situations. Success increasingly depends on individual initiative, which in turn springs from a sense of personal responsibility—these senses are atrophied by compulsion. Moreover, every unwilling man is a germ carrier, spreading infection to an extent altogether disproportionate to the value of the service he is forced to contribute.

Looking still further into the question, and thinking deeper, I came to see, also, that the greatest contributory factor to the great wars which had racked the world in recent generations had been the conscriptive system.

These logical deductions are confirmed by analysis of historical experience. The modern system of military conscription was born in France—it was, ironically, the misbegotten child of Revolutionary enthusiasm. Within a generation its application had become so obnoxious that its abolition was the primary demand of the French people following Napoleon's downfall. Meanwhile, however, it had been transplanted to more suitable soil—in Prussia. And just over half a century later the victories that Prussia gained led to the resurrection of conscription in France. Its reimposition was all the easier because the renewed autocracy of Napoleon III had accustomed the French people to the interference and constraints of bureaucracy. In the generation that followed, the revival of the spirit of freedom in France was accompanied by a growth of the petty bureaucracy, parasites feeding on the body politic. From this, the French could never succeed in shaking free; and in their efforts they merely developed corruption—which is the natural consequence of an ineffective effort to loosen the grip of compulsion by evasion.

It is generally recognized today that this rampant growth of bureaucratically induced corruption was the dry rot of the Third Republic. But on deeper examination the cause can be traced further back—to the misunderstanding of their own principles which led a section of the creators of the French Revolution to adopt a method fundamentally opposed to their fulfillment.

It might be thought that conscription should be less detrimental to the Germans, since they are more responsive to regulation and have no deeply rooted tradition of freedom. Nevertheless, it is of significance that the Nazi movement was essentially a voluntary movement—exclusive rather than comprehensive—and that the most important sections of the German forces—the air force and the task force—were recruited on a semi-voluntary basis. There is little evidence to suggest that the ordinary “mass” of the German Army had anything like the same enthusiasm, and considerable evidence to suggest that this conscripted mass constituted a basic weakness in Germany's apparent strength.

The system, as I have said, sprang out of the muddled thought of the French Revolution, was then exploited by Napoleon in his selfish ambition, and subsequently turned to serve the interests of Prussian militarism. After undermining the eighteenth-century “age of reason,” it had paved the way for the reign of unreason in the modern age.

Conscription serves to precipitate war, but not to accelerate it—except in the negative sense of accelerating the growth of war-weariness and other underlying causes of defeat. Conscription precipitated war in 1914, owing to the way that the mobilization of conscript armies disrupted national life and produced an atmosphere in which negotiation became impossible—confirming the warning “mobilization means war.” During that war its effect can be traced in the symptoms which preceded the collapse of the Russian, Austrian, and German armies, as well as the decline of the French and Italian armies. It was the least free states which collapsed under the strain of war—and they collapsed in the order of their degree of unfreedom. By contrast, the best fighting force in the fourth year of war was, by general recognition, the Australian Corps—the force which had rejected conscription and in which there was the least insistence on unthinking obedience.

Significantly, the advocacy of conscription in Britain can be traced back to the years immediately before the war and even prior to the adoption of military conscription—to a time when an influential section of people were more impressed by the social developments of the Nazi system than alarmed by its dangers. A campaign for “universal national service” was launched in the winter before Munich. As defined by Lord Lothian, in a letter to The Times in March 1938, it embodied the “allocation of every individual” to a particular form of service “whether in peace or in emergency.” It is being freshly urged now as an “educational” measure.

Such a system entails the suppression of individual judgment. It violates the cardinal principle of a free community: that there should be no restriction of individual freedom save where this is used for active interference with others' freedom. Our tradition of individual freedom is the slow-ripening fruit of centuries of effort. To surrender it within after fighting to defend it against dangers without would be a supremely ironical turn of our history. In respect of personal service, freedom means the right to be true to your convictions, to choose your course, and decide whether the cause is worth service and sacrifice. That is the difference between the free man and the state slave.

Unless the great majority of a people are willing to give their services there is something radically at fault in the state itself. In that case the state is not likely or worthy to survive under test—and compulsion will make no serious difference. We may be far from having attained an adequate state of freedom as yet, of economic freedom in particular, but the best assurance of our future lies in advancing conditions in which freedom can live and grow, not in abandoning such essentials of freedom as we have already attained.

In upholding the idea of compulsory service, its advocates have often emphasized that the principle was adopted in our statute law in certain times of alarm and applied in a haphazard way to the poorer classes of the community during the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century. Here they fail to take due account of the progressive development in our national principles and of the way our concept of freedom has been enlarged during the last century.

It was an advance in British civilization which brought us first to question and then to discard the press gang as well as the slave trade. The logical connection between the two institutions, as violations of our principles, was obvious. Is the tide of our civilization now on the ebb?

Another false argument is that since conscription has long been the rule in the Continental countries, including those which remain democracies, we need not fear the effect of adopting it. But the deeper I have gone into the study of war and the history of the past century the further I have come toward the conclusion that the development of conscription has damaged the growth of the idea of freedom in the Continental countries and thereby damaged their efficiency also—by undermining the sense of personal responsibility. There is only too much evidence that the temporary adoption of conscription by England had a permanent effect harmful to the development of freedom and democracy. For my own part, I have come to my present conviction of the supreme importance of freedom through the pursuit of efficiency. I believe that freedom is the foundation of efficiency, both national and military. Thus it is a practical folly as well as a spiritual surrender to “go totalitarian” as a result of fighting for existence against the totalitarian states. Cut off the incentive to freely given service and you dry up the life source of a free community.

We ought to realize that it is easier to adopt the compulsory principle of national life than to shake it off. Once compulsion for personal service is adopted in peacetime it will be hard to resist the extension of the principle to all other aspects of the nation's life, including freedom of thought, speech, and writing. We ought to think carefully, and to think ahead, before taking a decisive step toward totalitarianism. Or are we so accustomed to our chains that we are no longer conscious of them?

Progress by compulsion

It is only just to recognize that many of those who advocate such compulsory service are inspired by the desire that it should, and belief that it will, be a means to a good end. This view is one aspect of the larger idea that it is possible to make men good; that they must not only be shown the way to become better but compelled to follow it. That idea has been held by many reformers, most revolutionaries, and all busy-bodies. It has persisted in generation after generation, although as repeatedly contradicted by the experience of history. It is closely related—cousin at least—to the dominant concept of the Communist and Fascist movements.

While pointing out the analogy, and the fallacy, we should draw a distinction, however, between the positive and negative sides of the principle. The negative side comprises all laws which are framed to remove hindrances to progress and prevent interference by a selfish or naturally obstructive section of the community. It may be defined as a process of regulation, as contrasted with actual compulsion—which is, strictly, the positive process of forcing people to do some action against their will. Regulation, in the negative or protective sense of this definition, may be both necessary and helpful in promoting true progress. It does not infringe the principle of freedom, provided that it is wisely applied, for it is embraced in the corollary that freedom does not give license for interference with others' freedom. Moreover, it accords with the philosophical law of progress that the negative paves the way for the positive; that the best chance of ensuring a real step forward lies in taking care to avoid the mistakes that, in experience, have wrecked or distorted past attempts at progress.

At the same time history warns us that even in the negative regulatory sense, if much more in the positive compulsory sense, the effort to achieve progress by decree is apt to lead to reaction. The more hurried the effort, the greater the risk to its endurance. The surer way of achieving progress is by generating and diffusing the thought of improvement. Reforms that last are those that come naturally, and with less friction, when men's minds have become ripe for them. A life spent in sowing a few grains of fruitful thought is a life spent more effectively than in hasty action that produces a crop of weeds. That leads us to see the difference, truly a vital difference, between influence and power.


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Copyright (c) 1971 by Lady Kathleen Sullivan Liddell Hart

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