Monday, December 10, 2018

Lessons From Our Past

The Libertarian Forum, edited by Murray N. Rothbard; June 1, 1970

It has been some time since I last probed the pages of this semi-monthly newsletter edited by Murray Rothbard.  For various reasons, I find it appropriate to dive back in.  When we last left the story, Rothbard had concluded that the new left was hopeless when it came to prospects for liberty – having abandoned a radical anti-war stance and embraced various social and even libertine causes, none having to do with the objective of liberty – in fact, destructive of this objective.

Rothbard titles this edition “The New Movement: Peace Politics.”  Unfortunately, many who fancy themselves as libertarian cannot even grasp this simple concept – peace, as in anti-war, anti-interventionism.  This issue – and so much more – is covered in this edition, starting with the opening sentence:

There is no doubt about it: Richard Milhous Nixon is the most effective organizer that the anti-war movement has ever had.

There is to be found a small handful of libertarians – of which I count myself as one – who find in Trump similar benefits when it comes to advancing liberty. In Trump’s case, not because he is coalescing the anti-war forces so tremendously destroyed by Obama, but because he is making a mockery of the state – both through his positive and negative actions. 

Positive: he is unafraid to point out the hypocrisy of the state and the establishment; negative: the concept of dignity is not to be found in the same paragraph with the word president. 

Lesson 1: Making a mockery of the state is valuable if shrinking the state is one objective for libertarians.  That someone can be elected president with this mockery a major part of his platform is even more valuable.  That the elected president continues to mock the state after his inauguration is priceless.

It was this issue of war and peace that drove the handful of non-interventionists from the right to the new left in the 1950s; Rothbard now sees that it is driving him and others from the new left.  Describing an anti-war meeting that he attended with Leonard Liggio, the vast majority of left-leaning attendees booed the message.  Instead, they were after civil rights and socialism. 

Lesson 2: nothing surprising here, at least in concept; revolutionaries are all against something but rarely for the same thing.  Lesson 2.5: revolutions get coopted, usually by the worst elements in society.

However, Rothbard finds hope.  The new anti-war movement is made up of “real people”: businessmen (other than those employed by the merchants of death) and members of the President’s cabinet; people who are repelled by the antics of the new left.

Lesson 3: as the establishment today has made it unacceptable for “real people” to hold non-establishment (statist) views, pretty much anything that tears at the established narrative (e.g. Trump) is good for liberty.

The next essay in this edition of the newsletter is authored by Jerome Tuccille.  What is replacing the new left – the left that has fled the anti-war movement?

…a familiar two-headed beast: the old scarred and ugly face of doctrinaire Marxism and the more hideous visage of self-righteous nihilism.

Marxism at its root destroys the idea of private property.  Libertarianism has an answer for this.  But nihilism is “more hideous” than Marxism according to Tuccille.   An interesting thought. 

Lesson 4: libertarianism offers no defense against nihilism.  Yet, being more hideous than Marxism, maybe it should.

How to avoid the errors of our past?  Tuccille cites the success of Atlas Shrugged in the late 1950s, “the last best chance for free markets in the United States.”  Yet what came of this?  The novel offered no meaningful answers to the problems of the day.

While Objectivists engaged in the exclusive luxury of abstractions and ideology, a war was going on, housing and education among other vital institutions were coming apart, the cities were exploding with violence, the American middle class was falling into a daze, and government grew increasingly more repressive.

What was the Objectivist cure for this? Selfishness.
What was the cause of all our ills?  Altruism.          
What should we do about exploited minorities?  Leave them alone.

Tuccille wrote the eulogy of Objectivism only a decade after Rand’s novel – rightly, of course, but only a decade nonetheless.  Keep this in mind….

Instead of replying “rational self-interest” when people want to know how to meet these concerns, we will have to demonstrate how a strict enforcement of property rights will [provide answers]…

It has been forty-eight years since Tuccille wrote these words.  There has been phenomenal work done in the area of demonstrating how property rights can resolve many of the concerns of society – frankly, this discussion has been exhausted. 

Walter Block is correct when he offers that we are now working to move a fraction of an inch closer to the truth when we engage in debate and dialogue; yet we have already covered more than 99 out of the 100 inches on this path.  Will the straw of last remaining fraction of an inch be what breaks the camel’s back?  If ten years was long enough to write off Objectivism, what do we do with the libertarian reliance on property rights after half a century?

Lesson 5: libertarianism is no less an “abstraction and ideology” than is Objectivism.  Man doesn’t do well with abstractions and ideologies.  Perhaps instead of remaining focused on the last hidden corners of private property, a libertarian narrative is called for.  Leave it to Hans Hoppe to begin this conversation.  I think I will soon examine his lecture.



The closing essay in this edition is offered by Edwin G. Dolan, writing of “The Lenin Centennial” – 100 years since Lenin’s birth.  Dolan identifies “many sound principles of importance to any movement opposing the status quo,” taken from Lenin’s famous pamphlet “What is to be Done?

These and many other passages deserve the attention of libertarians as the 1970s begin, for our movement today has much in common with the bolshevism of the Iskra period.

Iskra was the political paper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).  Lenin’s “Iskra period” was from 1900 to 1903.  Fifteen years later, Lenin was victorious.

Revolutions all end the same way – with most revolutionaries greatly dissatisfied with the outcome, and most of these ending up on the guillotine or in the Gulag.  Is this the form of revolution we want?  Can we now, after fifty years, come up with a different path?


  1. "Can we now, after fifty years, come up with a different path?"

    This is why the 'button pusher' mentality has got to go. Button pushes, to the extent they've been approximated in history, create power vacuums - voids which are inevitably filled by those particular jackals and demons already standing closest to the edge (because they like the view into the abyss).

    We need to temper Rothbard's radicalism with Burke's prudence, Nisbet's community, and van Dunn's conscience, while still maintaining the end goal of private governance. In other words, we probably should just listen to Hoppe and Deist. I for one will also be listening to anything a certain robotic flying insect has to say on these matters.

    On top of this (among probably many others...) we must consider EvKL's vast cultural and historical insights as well, especially the following:

    " must bear in mind that only leftists produce movements, whereas, at best, the right can "organize" in a relatively hierarchic fashion. It has been well said by Spengler that the concept of the "party" in itself is leftish. Yet if movements and parties have no affinities for a genuinely rightist outlook, we must come to the conclusion that the principles of the right within the parliamentary-democratic framework can only prevail after a catastrophic default or collapse of leftism. The right cannot normally win by its own virtue, its truth, its values because it will never fascinate the masses. It will attract extraordinary and superior people but hardly ever the average man." - Leftism

    How are we to win back our traditions and our liberty if any movement we create will be overcome from within by leftists? We've already seen this play out with both liberalism and libertarianism. But how are we to inoculate a rightist movement from leftism? Or is that possible if all movements are necessarily leftish? Can we find a way to use leftists against themselves? Can we make them our useful idiots? Can the right only win after a catastrophic collapse of the leftist paradigm?

    Decentralization, polycentrism, subsidiarity, and self-determination are the key concepts here. I think within these we'll find the means of co-opting the left towards rightist ends. Perhaps this is the only way of avoiding the necessity of collapse?

    But even more than that, I think we must avoid the errors of both liberalism and libertarianism by, as you have have been doing for so long now, reconnecting liberty with its historic roots in Latin Christendom - with the Church (in the sense of the 5 Patriarchates, especially the 'primus inter pares' of Rome) - with traditional forms of authority and morality. We can't destroy a tree's roots and expect it to stand and flower, especially if we simultaneously try and graft on many branches of all different sorts. We have to reconnect the roots first. Once the roots are re-established and strong, new branches can be grafted on successfully with care.

    Nihilism is indeed the more pernicious opponent of liberty and everything that comes out of this particular pit, regardless of its beauty or sweet taste, has the indelible aroma of leftism (maybe its the brimstone?).

    In understanding the left, I think EvKL's wisdom is crucial. By the way, I've been enjoying all of your recent posts on EvKL's "Leftism." I've just been busy with no time to comment.

    1. "In other words, we probably should just listen to Hoppe and Deist."

      A ticket I would vote for!

      "Decentralization, polycentrism, subsidiarity, and self-determination are the key concepts here. I think within these we'll find the means of co-opting the left towards rightist ends."

      I don't think so. They view their philosophy as universal; decentralization inherently is anathema.

      "How are we to win back our traditions and our liberty if any movement we create will be overcome from within by leftists?"

      Churches - albeit not unified and not Catholic (universal) - must play a leading role...I am afraid. Speak truth to power, as NT Wright offers; I find no other institution powerful enough and with a large enough bully pulpit (literally) and with the right message that can play this part.

    2. Also, I find worthwhile all of your contributions here, and thank you for continuing to participate in advancing the dialogue.

    3. "They view their philosophy as universal; decentralization inherently is anathema."

      True, but we still see leftist nations (Catalonia, Scotland, California) trying to secede from the states they live under so that they can go further leftward with their politics. I think they will often compromise on their universal agenda in order to get the social programs they want now. The left is composed of all sorts of high time-preference / low impulse-control mentalities. I'm saying we use that against them by encouraging them to secede in every circumstance.

      Of course, they will only fall for this if they are true believers in socialism. If they recognize that socialism does not work and only use it tenets rhetorically as a means of attaining ever greater power, they will probably prefer the 'universal' aspect of leftism to actual implementation of the programs.

      The Church, as in the body of the Christian faithful everywhere, and especially its leaders, will certainly have to play a key role in building communities from the ground up. I have no argument against that.

      I think Traditional Catholics are our biggest natural ally here, though they often have their hang-ups as well (usury!, Romans 13, "Render unto Caesar" etc.). One thing I've come to find out about them is that they use the term 'state' to mean both government and society, which is confusing and a bit muddle-headed. I'd be interested to find out where exactly that happened in Catholic social teaching's history. I imagine it doesn't go any further back than the 1800s.

    4. ATL, your point about Catalonia, California, etc., is quite correct and I don't know how I missed it the first I have written on this before. Thanks.

  2. I know the link is to an unpopular website for this blog, but I thought the article was relevant.

    It ties into some themes you are developing on the blog. I don't think Solzhenitsyn prioritized freedom per se, but he does echo what you have been saying, BM, about what must exist in a culture for there to be a good society.

  3. The problem with revolutions is that they are not revolutionary. Revolutions have always been about one political faction capturing state power from another. 1776 did not rework the judicial bureaucracy but simply transferred its control from Great Britain to a nascent US political class. Far from reforming it, its first big project was the construction of a massive penitentiary. In the US the die was cast early on for the carceral society. 1776 was a revolution which immediately set about to multiply and develop existing institutions of state power, a process which has continued unabated. And so to answer bionics question, revolutions will only ever succeed in bringing liberty if they finally abolish existing institutions. In the realm of law, as long as the public prosecutor and state court remain untouched by revolution there can be no question of true liberation. Rothbard favored the private law society in which only the parties directly involved in a dispute can take legal action, where it falls on the accuser to demonstrate how his individual rights or property rights have been infringed, and to prove the restitution he demands is just. Revolutions must eliminate state institutions not merely reform them or merely transfer their control from one group to another.