Throughout Europe, Stretched the Silent Network of Liberalism
Stories for a Starting Place
I was reminded how I got started in the world of true (or classical) liberal ideas when a used book ordered on Amazon arrived. I started re-reading it and was again swept away. In middle school I read The Lord of the Rings from start to finish each summer. It was a grand landscape of great adventure with higher meanings I didn’t quite understand. But like Homer’s Odyssey it was an adventure where boys (young Hobbits actually) were transformed through experiences into men (still hobbits, but tougher ones). I was a boy and becoming a man and I guess wondered what orcs and goblins there would be in my path to fight. I read mostly science fiction in those years, having slowly graduated from Marvel comic books. Wandering the house one evening, I asked my mother for more science fiction. She suggested Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read it quickly, wondering first about the amazing engine said to draw vast power from the Earth’s electricity. There was much more in Atlas Shrugged, but at 16 or 17, the bad guys and economic conflict were as alien to me as monsters in science fiction. Tolkien dreamed a world of orcs and goblins by nature evil and elves by nature good. Men’s souls could be molded to live good lives or be seduced by evil. In Ayn Rand’s world men could become just as evil and just as bent on destroying all that was good in the world. It didn’t seem real to me at the time (and became real only in college where I met people who claimed to believe the same anti-life philosophies I had only read about in Atlas Shrugged). But Atlas Shrugged planted seeds of an alternate world here on Earth where strong and silent people could oppose bad ideas and destructive policies. I read most of the science fiction books by Ursula K. Leguin. Her Earthsea Trilogy was captivating, as were others of her early anthopology-based science fiction novels. In 1980 a new book appeared titled Malafrena. When I put this book down I knew what I wanted to do, though had no idea how to do it. Malafrena sounded like a mystical place and I assumed the novel would be science fiction or fantasy. Sinking deeper into the story, I kept expected a door to open to another world, or a ancient power to appear. After a time I walked through that door and was immersed in another world. I stepped into the past, into the fierce and confusing struggle for freedom waged in Central Europe thirty years after the French Revolution. (I heard an historian say recently that “the past is like another country.” So maybe the past in another country can be like another world.) Itale Sorde grew up in the provinces learning to manage his father’s estate, but surrounded by his grandfather’s books. At seventeen, home from boarding school, he happens one evening to begin reading through old French newspapers his grandfather had saved, turning to the year 1790. LeGuin writes: “He held the French Revolution in his hands. He read the speech in which the orator called down the wrath of the people on the house of privilege, the speech that ended, “Vivro libre, ou mourir!”– Live free, or die. The yellow newsprint crumbled under the boy’s touch; his head was bowed over dry columns of words spoken to a lost Assembly by men over thirty years dead… “The speeches were full of rant, cant, and vanity; he saw that clearly enough. But they discussed freedom as a human need, like bread, like water. Itale got up and walked up and down the quiet little library, rubbing his head and staring blankly at the bookcases and the windows. Freedom was not a necessity, it was a danger, all the lawmakers of Europe had been saying that for a decade. Men were children, to be governed for their own good by the few who understood the science of government. What did this Frenchman Vergniaud mean by stating a choice–live free or die? Such choices are not offered to children. The words were spoken to men. They rang bald and strange; they lacked the logic of statements made in support of alliances, counter-alliances, censorships, repressions, reprisals…” Itale then goes off, in September of 1822, to attend college in the provincial capital. In college he meets others and joins Amiktiya, a secret society, “The drank a lot of wine… passed contraband books around, discussed revolutions in France, Naples, Piedmont, Spain, Greece, talked of constitutional monarchy, equality before the law, popular education, a free press, all without any clear idea of what they were getting at, where it all led. They were not supposed to talk, so they talked.” (p. 16) A dinner conversation is described with Itale and his father and uncle discussing the coming meeting of Estates, the first in thirty years. The uncle hopes for local control at least of taxes, “They might be able to do something about taxation at least. The Hungarian Diet’s won back control over their taxes from Vienna.” But Itale’s father answers “What if they did? Taxes won’t be decreased. Taxes are never decreased.” Itale replies “The money wouldn’t go to support a foreign police force, at any rate.” After college, it is time for Itale to return to his home in Malafrena. But instead he talks with his friends of going to Krasnoy, the capital, to fight, somehow, for freedom. “There must be men in the city who would welcome them and put them to work. There were said to be secret societies there, which corresponded with similar groups in Piedmont and Lombardy, Naples, Bohemia, Poland, German states: for through the territories and satellites of the Austrian Empire and even beyond, throughout Europe, stretched the silent network of liberalism, like the nervous system of a sleeping man. A restless sleep, feverish, full of dreams. … Itale went striding down the shady street like a summer whirlwind, his face hot, his coat open.” (p. 7). (from Malafrena by Ursula K. LeGuin). Malafrena is not about free-markets or libertarian ideas. As I recall LeGuin gives glimpses of horrific early industiralization and abuse of workers. I will reread these parts to see if my early impressions, fresh from reading Ayn Rand and not knowing much history, are correct. Things were pretty terrible in the beginning of the industrial period for a lot of people. But they were better than available alternatives, including life on the farm. Otherwise people would have left crummy industrial jobs and moved back to the countryside to work for their old aristocratic masters. Or at least thousands then streaming into cities throughout Europe–as they do in the underdeveloped world today–would have stayed home. (Early industrialization in Europe, following the destruction of the Napoleonic Wars, was especially dark. England had gone deeply in debt to pay for the war. All that wealth was destroyed and impoverished workers were taxed heavily to pay the debts. So things did get worse for many, but not because capitalism was somehow less productive or less fair, or was heading for an over-production crack-up.) I read Malafrena in a fever similar to Itale Sorde’s described above, and wished as well to leave the provinces and join the fight for (classical) liberalism. I attended an Institute for Humane Studies seminar that summer and visited the Cato Institute (as close as we had to secret societies in the 1980s) looking for an internship position. Instead I joined the Institute for Humane Studies and assisted with their Liberty and Society seminars and directed an program for high school speech and debate students. So now, many years later, I am rereading the book that first got me thinking about joining “the movement.” And when students from this summer’s IES-Europe Seminars write to ask about classical liberal ideas and internships (with today’s “secret societies”), I write them to recommend Malafrena, North and South, and Atlas Shrugged.