Foreign Correspondent: Afflicted with Optimism


Ghent, Belgium. This is my eighth annual report in this magazine. It will also be the first not-too-pessimistic one. The intellectual climate in Europe is no longer exclusively Marxist-collectivist. Classical liberal and even libertarian rumbles are increasingly heard. How did this come about? I don't pretend to know, but the Nobel Prizes won by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, added to the work of Solzhenitsyn, first come to my mind as possible explanations.

As far as I can judge, Hayek's Nobel Prize had the biggest impact in England and in Germany, where C.D.U. leader Helmuth Kohl flooded the electorate with copies of a German translation of The Road to Serfdom. Friedman's impact was even bigger. His views were publicized in newspapers and mass circulation magazines. Just a few weeks ago, some followers of his from the University of Louvain were interviewed on Belgian radio. One of them stated with characteristic bluntness that the time had come to turn one's back upon the New Left economics of the 1960's and opt for New Right economics that would put less trust in State authority and be more willing to give market mechanisms a chance.

Solzhenitsyn has been important in another way, in breaking a lot of intellectuals' enchantment with Marxism. Frankly, I have never understood this very well. Although I yield to no one in expressing my appreciation for this honest and intelligent man, most of what he revealed about Soviet Russia was known before. But for some reason or other, he was the first one to catch the leftist intellectuals' ear, inducing at least some of them to break away from Marxism.

His influence can easily be traced, for example, in the phenomenon of the French "nouveaux philosophes" (new philosophers), most of them ex-Marxists who have come to reject their former idol. Since they were the subject of recent articles in Time and REASON, I won't dwell upon them too extensively. Just let me mention that Time did not exaggerate: their books are selling like hot cakes, even in Belgium. Their influence is purely negative (they are anti-ideologues, not libertarians—although Nietszchean and classical liberal traces can be found in some of their books) but still considerable. The nearest American phenomenon you could compare them to is the counterculture of the sixties. I expect you'll see translations of their books (maybe those by Andre Glucksmann and Bernard Henry Levy) on the American market in a few months.

Also in France, a book with the significant title Vive le Capitalisme (Long Live Capitalism), written by one Maurice Roy, was published just a few weeks ago. It's written in a typically superficial French style, filled with numbers and statistics rather than ideas, but it definitely is procapitalistic. One chapter extensively covers the American libertarian movement, mentioning Rothbard, the Friedmans and Nozick by name. It's too early, of course, to tell whether it will have even half the success of the new philosophers' work.

And then there's also veteran anti-leftist Jean Francois Revel (whose books have been translated into English) who goes on writing (and being read) like hell. The fact that all this happens in France, of all countries, is doubly significant. If ever there was one place where Marxism had an intellectual near-monopoly, it must have been there.

But you'll want to hear something about tiny Belgium too, I suppose. Here also, the news is not too bad, although even one or two months from now, I may be in a better position to judge. I remember telling you, more than a year ago, that a semi-libertarian pressure group, the Beweging Beperking Staatsmacht (BBS) had been founded. It never got anywhere, so some of the members in fact decided to "flee forward," into straight politics, by founding a new party. Late in November it was formally presented to the media and the public, with Mogens Glistrup from Denmark as a guest speaker. More than 100 people attended and television coverage was fair. The Radicals' Party (as they decided to call it) platform is far from being fully libertarian. Taxation is accepted, social and life-style issues ignored (I happen to know the president personally favors compulsory military service) and State subsidies to the schools declared "worth considering." So even if successful, the party can only be considered a small step in the right direction.

In the meantime, while the "politicians" inside the movement founded a party, the "philosophers" set up a Libertarian Center, for the purpose of finally starting the long-needed libertarian education of the intellectuals. A small bookshop was established, doing rather well and serving as a center for providing information to the public. As a first development I shall start holding regular libertarian meetings in a few days. How far all this will go is difficult to tell, but, big or small, there's no doubt in my mind that this, rather than the BBS thing a year ago, represents the real start of the Belgian libertarian movement. Our first discovery, in selling the books, was that two of our customers, assistant law professors at the University of Ghent, were already hardcore libertarians busily working in their professional environment. All this evidently relates to the political and ideological microscosmos. If you're interested in the macrocosmos, you may want to know that Belgium is one of the few countries that increased taxes once again. The only consolation is that apparently most politicians realize the limit has been reached. Recently even socialist minister Simonet warned against too much State intervention. Some day he may even try to put his ideas into practice.