The history of left-libertarianism

It’s not easy to talk about left-libertarianism. These days most people still associate libertarianism with the right, and the fact that most left-libertarians identify as anarchist must confuse those not too aware of political philosophy; one might think that think left-libertarians are another kind of collectivist anarchists. I would to start by quoting perhaps the most well-known left-libertarian alive, Sheldon Richman, who was a fellow at several libertarian think-tanks and whose articles are reprinted by both Reason and CounterPunch. Curiously enough his most didactic article on left-libertarianism appeared at The American Conservative:

Left-libertarians favor worker solidarity vis-à-vis bosses, support poor people’s squatting on government or abandoned property, and prefer that corporate privileges be repealed before the regulatory restrictions on how those privileges may be exercised. They see Walmart as a symbol of corporate favoritism—supported by highway subsidies and eminent domain—view the fictive personhood of the limited-liability corporation with suspicion, and doubt that Third World sweatshops would be the “best alternative” in the absence of government manipulation.

Obviously radical statements like that don’t sound like the usual “free market” reforms that some people promote in the GOP, not even something that one could hear from libertarian institutions like the Cato Institute. It’s is probably the complex history of the libertarian movement that is most useful in explaining left-libertarianism. The libertarian story is long and had a particular relation to American history. I still recommend the marvelous Radicals for Capitalism of Brian Doherty, to these the day the most complete history of the American libertarian movement, readers could be surprised to know that despite its name, Doherty devoted a long part of the book to the left-libertarian writer Karl Hess. Another very interesting work is History of the Libertarian Movement by Samuel Edward Konkin, obviously like all of his writings it was from a more left-libertarian perspective.

The most common point of origin left-libertarians point to is the precursors of libertarianism, sometimes called proto-libertarianism. The nineteen century had several radical individualist anarchists that were in favor of free markets, including thinkers like Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker and Voltarine de Cleyre. Then in twentieth century the New Left-Old Right alliance that Murray Rothbard proposed in the context of the opposition to the Vietnam War was vital for the development of left-libertarianism. Probably the most known left-libertarians of this period is Karl Hess, the Goldwater speechwriter turned Black Panther ally, the National Review founder who wrote legendary manifesto The Death of Politics at Playboy, the man that leave the American Enterprise Institute for the Institute of Policy Studies, from working for the RNC to be an SDS activist.

He probably lived one of the most radical political lives in America, and became a legend in libertarian folklore. Karl Hess at a young age read both individualists and socialists, and had been a member for a while of the Socialist Party. In his teenage years he started a career in journalism that was marked by his profound opposition to the New Deal and to Roosevelt, whom he considered a fascist. That was a great part of the reason why he join the Republican Party, and because of his marvelous writing he become a promising figure in conservative politics to the point of coining the most famous phrase of Goldwater campaign: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” 

I still believe that these words represent the radical libertarian convictions of Karl Hess, who after working in the Goldwarer campaign ended up becoming one of the most iconic American anarchists, with his antiwar activism and becoming a tax resister. He ended up living in rural West Virginia, working as a welder. While he opposed public education, he was a volunteer at the local library and taught courses in logic to children.

In the years after the Vietnam War he worked for as an editor of the Libertarian Party newspaper. There are some wonderful videos from this time, including a conversation with left-libertarian giant Robert Anton Wilson, as well a series of lectures on libertarianism. He appears in the documentary Toward Liberty, in which he related several parts of his life in 1981, which won an Academy Award in the documentary shorts category. He also was part of the 1983 documentary Anarchism in America, wherein which he speaks about why he prefers Emma Goldman over Ayn Rand — not a very popular position in the libertarian movement.

His death in 1994 was a tragic moment for the broad libertarian movement since they probably lost their best spokesmen. Hess, unlike most libertarians, was able to talk to the left in a way that few libertarians and even left-libertarians could, his ideals of social justice were more clear than his knowledge of Mises, and the fact that for him environmentalism was a vital part of politics though he never supported government regulations. He was an anarchist who preferred to be called a free market pluralist, and in style and action was far to the left of the average libertarian. In his writings he was profoundly personal, in a letter to whom had been his friend and employer the Senator Barry Goldwater, he spoke about his other friends, the Black Panthers whom he compared to the American fighters of the Revolutionary War who were willing to die for liberty. He goes as far as saying that since the Viet Cong supported individual liberty, freedom of trade and private property, it was necessary for a supposed defender of free markets like Goldwater to change his position on Vietnam.

Karl Hess is worth remembering, especially because today, left-libertarians could learn from him how to speak to non-libertarians both on the left and right. But Hess wasn’t the only left-libertarian of the New Left; another famous libertarian in that camp was Robert Anton Wilson, a science fiction writer and stand-up philosopher interested in conspiracy theories. Wilson like Hess understood that politics were not a left-right spectrum. Coming from the Trotskyist left, with time he became an anarchist especially influenced by the early individualists, and defined his politics as non-Euclidian.

Carl Oglesby was another notorious left-libertarian and a former president of the SDS, he rejected both corporate capitalism and state socialism, his dream was left-libertarian alliance represent great part of the most decentralists aspects of the New Left, unlike many liberal reformists in SDS, he blamed liberals from Harry Truman to JFK for the Vietnam War, and claimed to be fan of Robert Taft and Murray Rothbard. Oglesby was also influenced by socialist historian Gabriel Kolko, who said “It was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.”

Oglesby also echoed the ideas Martin J. Sklar, the man who coined the term “corporate liberalism.” Both Kolko and Sklar were New Left critics of corporate state and to a certain level the New Deal, though they never become free market libertarians. There were other socialists from the New Left that developed a more interesting relation with the libertarian movement like William Domhoff, a psychologist who wrote Who rules America? A book that centers on a critique of the power elite, the special interests from big business that shape and make bigger of the State, he even appears friendly to libertarians in a conference with Murray Rothbard.

One of the most transcendent thinkers in present left-libertarianism is Samuel Edward Konkin (also known as SEK3) who’s central theory was agorism, a political philosophy center in counter-economics, Konkin argued that black and grey markets were the path to achieve a stateless society.

Most of the libertarians I’ve mentioned were or are anarchists, but only Robert Anton Wilson and SEK3 rejected voting, while Karl Hess was involved in incarnations of the New Left like the People’s Party, and then in the Libertarian Party despite being an anarchist, and Carl Oglesby, despite being a libertarian supported the minimum wage. He wasn’t an anarchist and had said good things about politicians as diverse as Robert Kennedy and Ron Paul.

Murray Rothbard was in that period fairly more to the left that some people might imagine for someone who call himself an anarcho-capitalist. There is article from him written in his New Left days reprinted some years ago as All Power to the Soviets in which he argues for expropriating the property of the government in favor of the workers, from the land to the military. Obviously these aren’t free market reforms, they sound like a really serious libertarian revolution. Rothbard was involved in the Peace and Freedom Party, the electoral expression of the New Left that some libertarians joined to oppose to the Vietnam War.

If something could be said about the New Left, it’s that it actually offers a critique of New Deal created by the interventionist liberals. Their politics weren’t Keynesian but rather decentralist, they were really interested in participatory democracy, meaning a truly grassroots neighborhood power opposed to centralized control from Washington. In that context Rothbard sought an alliance with the supposedly far left which was more open to that kind of alliance than average liberals. A funny anecdote of those days was told by Walter Block; when libertarians convinced a group of Maoists to vote in favor of the gold standard. As one could imagine, these were wild times. But even after the New Left fell into sectarian bickering and abandoned their initial decentralist impulses, Rothbard still hoped that the New Left-Old Right alliance could be in the future a possibility:

And so libertarianism itself grows apace, fueled by split-offs from conservatism and liberalism alike. Just as conservatives and liberals have effectively blended into a consensus to uphold the Establishment, so what America needs now — and can have — is a countercoalition in opposition to the Welfare-Warfare State, a coalition that would favor the short-term libertarian goals of militant opposition to the Vietnam War and the Cold War generally, and to conscription, the military-industrial complex, and the high taxes and accelerated inflation that the state has needed to finance these statist measures. It would be a coalition to advance the cause of both civil liberty and economic freedom from government dictation. It would be, in many ways, a renaissance of a coalition between the best of the Old Right and the old New Left, a return to the glorious days when elements of Left and Right stood shoulder to shoulder to oppose the conquest of the Philippines and America’s entry into World Wars I and II. Here would be a coalition that could appeal to all groups throughout America, to the middle class, workers, students, liberals, and conservatives alike.

In a previous article I argued that the McGovern campaign had a lot to do with the end of the dream of a left-libertarian alliance. I still think that, but I should mention the fact that in 1971, the Libertarian Party was born. It was an attempt by libertarians to establish independence from the left, especially from the Peace and Freedom Party. That being said, I think there was still a place in the early LP to be open to the New Left, since some of their members came from the SDS, and after all people as radical as Murray Bookchin were speakers at their events. But that was before the LP and the libertarian movement shifted to the right.

Hess and Rothbard managed to influence especially at least two politicians in Washington. First was Republican Senator Mark Hatfield from Oregon, who died in 2011. Among his proposals there were New Left positions like the decentralist policy of giving neighborhoods control of social programs. He was also a staunchly antiwar congressman who voted against the wars in Vietnam, Central America, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. The other politician deeply influenced by New Left libertarianism was John McLaughry, a Ronald Reagan speechwriter with sympathy for cooperatives and the Black Power movement. While he isn’t exactly a left-libertarian but he is one of the few Jeffersonian republicans out there.

In the 70s, the nascent left-libertarian wing of the New Left could choose several directions, but instead it went underground. The New Left had been highly decentralist, but when it ccme to State power in their benefit, they supported a system they were criticizing at the same time. One example certainly was identity politics. Feminism had a lot of critics in the left, earlier people from the Old Left and the Socialist Party considered it a dangerous ideology. But then the question of abortion after Roe v. Wade, made the more militant feminism a central part of mainstream left. It’s worth noting that the politician most near to the New Left ideals, Mark Hatfield, was pro-life.

Race was another factor and was even more divisive in the New Left. Usually people assume that all in the left were in favor of the Civil Rights Movement, however some anarchists like Howard Zinn thought that minority communities would lose autonomy, which was true. Both the Black Panthers and La Raza were supporters of secession, while other groups preferred assimilation, the white New Left was ambivalent in that regard. Electing black or latino politicians doesn’t change much if that politicians then become part of the liberal elite which created the racist war on drugs and the prison-industrial complex. Race and gender were topics that transform a part of anti-statist New Left into a liberal reformers who prefer state action in most issues. I actually agree with Bill Kauffman, McGovern should remain a hero of the left for his foreign policy, but in his economics he was fairly more statist than the average member New Left. The sad part of the cultural shift in the left was that some people started to defend military interventionism as a defense of feminism. While some people argue that the New Left was Marxist I disagree, the American New Left was fairly left-libertarian in their opposition to Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism and any form of authoritarian leftism as popularized by anarchist Murray Bookchin in his famous Listen, Marxist! He argued for an economics based on communities, not central planning, and idea that was at the foundation of the participatory democracy of SDS. The experiment of the communes was a form of that, some version of voluntary communism as opposed to the imposition of an ideology on others.

On the other hand, because the left now inside the Democratic Party became more statist, left-libertarians remained independent even if Karl Hess was an LP member. Hess, Wilson, Oglesby and SEK3 were among the great names of libertarianism at large but then the libertarian movement was going to the right. The think tanks like Cato and Mises played an important role in both the cosmopolitan and paleo wings of the movement, and both had their differences with the left. SEK3 is the one who coined the term Kochtopus for Cato and Reason, and was aware of the low sympathy for agorism in DC libertarian circles. Maybe libertarian “class analysis” might say that think-tanks were a way for rich libertarians to convince influential people that libertarianism wasn’t a fringe idea, but rather a real philosophical position with possibilities for use in policy reform.

There are not many things that could count as left-libertarianism in the 80s and 90s, as the libertarian movement was increasingly driving rightward with the exception the Movement of the Libertarian Left and the Agorist Institute of SEK3. Some people in the left from Noam Chomsky to Christopher Hitchens interacted with libertarians and spoke about the possibility of an alliance. In the 2000s with the Iraq War there was a feeling that a left-libertarian alliance like the New Left could be possible, when libertarians saw big government, abuses of civil liberty, and imperial wars under a Republican administration.

Ralph Nader seemed to offer another prospect for an alliance between leftists and libertarians, even ones of a conservative bent like Justin Raimondo or Bill Kauffman, being a candidate who represented a more New Left perspective .While initially Nader wasn’t the most natural option, the problems at the LP give him a reconsideration, and after the election he sounded more libertarian with a quasi endorsement to Ron Paul in 2012, speaking at the Cato Institute about the need to reduce Washington bureaucracy by half, denouncing the corporate state, and even calling the need of a populist left-right alliance.

But if there were some developments among the electoral left, anarchists also had their projects like the Center for a Stateless Society, a left-libertarian think-tank promoting free market anarchism as well as other organizations like Alliance of the Libertarian Left. These group include left-rothbardians, mutualists, agorists, voluntary socialists and georgists as well as some people with a more heterodox background. C4SS had edited a very interesting book Markets Not Capitalism in which several writers argue that capitalism is synonym for corporate protectionism from the state and that a true free market only could be achieved with anarchism. There are lot of very different kinds of left-libertarians from heterodox writers like Sheldon Richman, Kevin Carson and Charles Johnson to philosophy professors like Gary Chartier and Roderick Long.

But probably the most heterodox of all is former CounterPunch editor, the late Alexander Cockburn, whose ideology was a mix of Marxism, anarchism, and libertarianism. He opposed Keynesianism, statism, and imperialism altogether, he was an antiwar decentralist anti-capitalist. He could be considered a libertarian more in the sense of Carl Oglesby than Karl Hess. While he supported the minimum wage and single-payer healthcare, he was also supporter of gun rights and in general sympathetic to paleoconservatives and free market anarchists. He was a staunch critic of mainstream liberals like Naomi Klein, and always was willing to take unpopular positions if his convictions were beyond the narrative of political correctness.

Today left-libertarianism is gaining momentum, not only in America but overseas as well, and there are several articles written from this perspective as well as multiple books. I would like to end by trying to solve a question from J. Arthur Bloom:

Pundits love to talk about the libertarian moment we’re living in, supposedly demonstrated by polling that suggests Americans are socially liberal but frugal and concerned about civil liberty. According to polling by Reason in February, college-aged Americans are marginally more favorable to socialism than capitalism when asked to choose, though they favor a free market system to a government managed economy by a fairly large margin. The pollster suggests that perhaps these young people just don’t know what they’re talking about, and that’s certainly possible, but is there more to it than that? Could it be that they’re looking for something, not quite libertarian, that isn’t being spoken to by either the left or the right?

I think that what Americans are referring to is left-libertarianism, even if they don’t know that name. It’s an unusual mix, from the free market communes of the Free State Project in New Hampshire, to the agorist project of Bitcoin — after all Ron Paul was to the left of Barack Obama in the last election. In times when great majorities are claiming that they are governed by a tiny elite, who better than left-libertarians to say, ‘that’s true, but the answer isn’t the Keynesianism that created a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.’

Left-libertarians probably would say that it isn’t the state but the communities, which should control the resources. Left-libertarians were profoundly Jeffersonian. In the New Left’s time, conservatives accused them of being radicals and traitors, they were the conscious that it was precisely the radical and libertarian spirit of America that was betrayed by the militaristic nationalism of the right. Nader had spoken at a Tea Party, Ron Paul followers had been present in the Occupy movement and when Justin Amash opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, arguing that it would give corporations the possibility to violate the private property of individuals, he sounded like he was channeling Karl Hess. Maybe it’s too early to tell if left-libertarianism has electoral prospects, but in the meantime we can follow Robert Anton Wilson’s advice: Non serviam.

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10 comments

  1. Nice article that brought back memories, as I had the privilege of knowing and working with Rothbard, Hess and Wilson. Thank you.

    But, we’ve seen how the masters of the modern state have developed mechanism of control that would have surprised and saddened each of them. The determining issue of the 21st Century is Informed Consent. http://tinyurl.com/InformedConsentPetition

    Like

  2. “Karl Hess … the National Review founder”

    AFAIK, Hess was never associated with NR. In _The Conservative Press in Twentieth-century America_, which has a full chapter on National Review, the only mentions of Hess are under Rothbard’s _Libertarian Forum_ and _Faith and Freedom_.

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