Introductions — Are they Worth the Bother?
Do you read introductions? It is a rarity that I would ever find the need to review a book’s introduction, but then again how often does a book’s set of prefaces and introductions consume 26% of it’s content?
If you are like me, you want to dive into a book. With few exceptions, what constitutes forwards, prefaces and introductions are often formalities. I got into the habit of speed-reading through books while in college and the first part of most books I read I skipped over. Not to say I would advise that, but it was one of my survival techniques to get through a heavy reading load.
But amongst “My Old Friends” there are some very important introductions. Every important document has a context. You can’t imagine reading over the Declaration of Independence without some rudimentary understanding of the American Revolution. Understanding the historical context, you gain some understanding of what words meant. “That all men are created equal” literally meant males, most particularly white males. Yet when one delves into the debates that preceded the document, you discover that many in the room meant all men, whether black or white. You begin to see the smoldering fires of the Civil War. And for a small minority their smart wives should have a say on how the nation should be governed. Can you imagine reading the Gettysburg Address and not understand what happened at Gettysburg? Or the macabre setting of “Work is Freedom?”
I had the good fortune of taking a freshman English composition class that focused on the works of CS Lewis. That would inevitably lead me to JRR Tolkien. The two men would frequent a tavern in Cambridge called The Eagle and Child sharing their thoughts over a few beers. It is amazing that what could be considered two of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century evolved from what amounts to literary therapy, using a created world to address the darkness that was shrouding Europe in the 1930’s. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia had a context that readers may need to understand. To their credit, the Disney productions provided some insight into the context when they made the Narnia film series.
The Road to Serfdom
FA Hayek’s Road to Serfdom requires some serious introduction. Like Tolkien and Lewis, he was addressing the evil of totalitarianism. His first edition of the book was published in March, 1944 in England and then later in September in the United States by the University of Chicago Press. The book merited some explanation because he had written as a professor of economics in England, addressing issues of importance to the British. Socialism was not some remote notion. It was real and deeply immersed in the politics of the day. It was, alas, “democratic socialism.” It was not the butchery of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. This was a benign form of socialism where the people could determine the degree to which the State would control production. Yet Hayek was one of the few who sounded warnings about where socialism would lead. His concerns were encased in this book.
So when reading the book, some time and energy is required to read over the content again and note the time he wrote and the audience. He even admits in subsequent editions that he had first written the book with some deference to the Soviet Union because of the fact that the USSR was fighting as an ally against Germany. He was also surprised how the book caught on in the US. At the time of the 1956 and 1976 editions, he was freed to be more objective, streamlining his theory to include the abuses of socialism in the USSR and to reflect on the crumbling state of the British economy in the 1970’s as proof that socialism had some serious defects that needed to be considered.
It is amazing that through all the prefaces and introductions, sixty-three pages are consumed! It demonstrates the controversy and energy that surrounds the ideas presented in the book. Hayek would be the still, small voice crying in the wilderness. Almost all his colleagues were socialists. Some he would declare held “contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism” and would possess “the same fatalistic acceptance of ‘inevitable trends.’” He had to remind his critiques that it was they, not capitalists, who held the resurgent economy of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s as a model to be emulated.1 The theme throughout the book is clearly stated in the introduction.
Few are ready to recognize that the rise of fascism and naziism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies…. As a result, many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of naziism, and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny.2
1 The Road to Serfdom, FA Hayek, University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 58
2 Hayek, p. 59
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