Drakopoulos, Pan: Hayek and Wittgenstein
We know that he was positive towards Lenin –which means that he, too, had denied the current reformist social democracy, but he had moved in the completely opposite direction to Hayek.
In the spring of 1928, the economist, Prof. Denis Robertson invited the director of the Mises Institute , young Hayek, to Cambridge. They were strolling along the banks of the Cam, when they saw Wittgenstein lying down on the grass. Robertson sheered off trying to avoid him (it was obvious that there was nothing but a nuisance in his path), but Hayek rushed towards him and spoke to him with a warm and most amicable voice. They discussed family news for a short while and then … the void! Hayek understood that his cousin did not know or did not want to say more. So, he retreated to rejoin Robertson. Was Wittgenstein’s attitude scornful? Anyhow, it is apparent that this is how Hayek interpreted his behavior, and he was hurt at that. Therefore he gave up any interest in communicating with him. But for us, the question remains open.
One way or another, beyond political differences, Hayek could not help sensing the increased distance between him and his cousin. In 1921, when Tractatus came out in German, Hayek was one of its first readers: he bought it the very first day of its publication and he “pitched into” studying it. He was deeply impressed by his cousin’s work, but it was alien to his own nature and mind. What could the latter, who advocated a completely open society, have in common with one who was so hermetically sealed?
Ludwig Wittgenstein often used to put the following question: “What’s the use of philosophy if not to ameliorate the way we think about the most significant issues of our daily life?” Hayek could not of course dispute this kind of question, but by this yardstick, how did his philosophy help Wittgenstein himself? His pro-Leninism induced him to travel to communist Russia in 1936 –even wishing to settle there; nothing wrong, nothing indeed that needed amendment. By going to that communist country, he proved to himself that whatever the western newspapers wrote about the hell of terror and oppression was not only propaganda, but also nonsense perpetrated by people unversed in philosophy. Besides, that country saw a unique economic development under the wise leadership of Stalin; a development which decisively and entirely contradicted the theories (of Mises and Hayek) that socialism was unable to provide an increase of wealth and freedom for the people.
Also on the 12 March 1938 he assured his colleagues in Cambridge that the rumors about the embodiment of Austria into Hitler’s Germany were lies and nonsense. With the authority that derived from his nationality and his philosophical stature he explained that Hitler was not what journalists said: he was not about to conquer any country, and certainly not Austria because he had no reason for that; after all, “what’s the use of Austria for him?”, he asked. But, on the same day the new pro-Nazi government of Austria having `invited’ the German army into the country “to establish peace and order in Austria”, the `Anschluss’ became a fait accompli; it was the embodiment which the gifted philosopher considered impossible and pointless.
Moreover, when under a Nuremberg decree the Wittgensteins were characterized as Jews, Ludwig wrote to his sister: “There is no cause for alarm; a lot of people respect you, who would ever dare to harm you?”
Of course, he was not the only intellectual in the West to burn incense at the altar of the Red Baal, nor the only one to believe that, “you are not to be chased unless you have done something wrong”. In short, he was not the only one who could not understand the nature of totalitarianism. Most of them, even today, continue to believe that totalitarianism is simply a less casual regime than others. But the question arises: Which of the two cousins developed the theory which would “help a fly to come out of the bottle?”..