Building a New Libertarian Movement (May, 2001)
[The following, which I co-authored with the late Samuel Edward Konkin III, originally appeared in slightly different form under the title “Smashing the State for Fun & Profit!” in Tactics of the Movement of the Libertarian Left (Vol. 5, No. 1), May Day 2001. I offer it here as a clarification of “Libertarian Leftism,” an illuminating piece of political revisionist history, and a contribution to Tom Knapp’s ongoing Symposium on Building a New Libertarian Movement. I apologize for its length.]
Libertarian Left? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?
Certainly, those tied to the so-called “Libertarian” Party, that preposterous right-wing oxymoron committed to abolishing rule by the State by accepting rule by a political party (i.e., partyarchy), will insist that Libertarianism is never Left. Likewise, the State’s parasitic class of bureaucrats, politicians, social planners, shrinks, academics, court historians, subsidized businessmen, privileged labor leaders, and military mass murderers who call themselves Leftist will insist that Left is socialist, never Libertarian.
We Left Libertarians say, “A pox on both their houses!”
The Movement of the Libertarian Left is Left both inside and out. We wish to abolish the State. We are uncompromising agorists — those who utilize only peaceful trade and voluntary interactions to attain our goals. We fight for the radicalization of the present Libertarian Movement, much of which is rotten with corruption, compromise, conservatism, co-opting, and cowardice. We expose mercilessly the fraudulent proposals by the “Libertarian” Party to elect politicians to abolish politics, to appoint bureaucrats to abolish bureaucracy, and to govern to abolish government. We fight tooth and nail against those who would attempt to monopolize a free market, create an Establishment in an anarchy, and debilitate our actions with political pseudo-action. This agenda puts us, in most political lexicons, on the Left. Since it is explicitly anarchist, it places us on the Far Left.
“Left,” from earliest political times, has meant “anti-establishment.” Its core meaning is opposition. And since it is opposition in a political context (originally those opposed to the majority government in the French assemblée after the Revolution), it means opposition, at the least, to the current government and the Establishment, and at most, opposition to the State itself. Anarchists, whether collectivists or individualists, communists or agorists (marketeers), have always remained on the furthest Left.
Summarizing volumes of movement and submovement history, what happened to the Left is that it (largely) abandoned the idea that Property was a bulwark against the Establishment (in the 17th and 18th Century, largely landed aristocracy) and a basis for freedom. Instead of defending the property of the poor and disenfranchised, the Left turned to attack the “property” of the rich as the foundation of their oppression.
But in the 19th Century, there was much confusion and debate on the proper definition of property and its moral (and immoral) origins. The second move which divided the Left was that first Liberals and then Socialists (usually Social Democrats) became the Establishment themselves!
The socialists were divided themselves as to whether they should participate as political parties in elections. The majority generally rejected it as counterrevolutionary or a waste of time at best, but with the Establishment rewarding and reinforcing what it considered civilized political behavior, the minority became the majority…and ever more “moderate” or Centrist…and statist. Those who considered themselves socialist but rejected either running moderate socialist states for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, or joining Worker Dictatorships that repressed opposition and took sides in capitalist wars, were driven to the fringes of the Left or out of it entirely by the 1920s — although they were the originals.
In the 1930s, what was originally called “Liberalism” became so alienated from the statism which had usurped the label that it formed a coalition with the remnants of American conservatism against FDR’s New Deal. This became the “Old Right” of the 1940s: individualist, anti-imperialist (“isolationist”), and anti-war. But even this position was betrayed in the 1950s by such young Old Rightists turned New Right Cold Warriors as William F. Buckley, Jr. When the U.S. Right embraced internationalism (imperialism), the Libertarian faction held on to its isolationism and found…
…a New Left arising in 1960. Although much of its vocabulary was formed through the “Old Left” ideological wars of the 1930s, the New Left rejected the totalitarianism of State Communism and the bland statism of social-democratic parliamentary governments. In the U.S., the New Left consciously hearkened to traditions of decentralism and community control, as well as the anti-imperialist movements going back to 1898, in complete opposition to the Establishment heirs of the New Deal. The remains of the Older Left were centrifugally hurled out by the seductive attraction of Left Statism.
What was the New Left in 1965 was conducive to an alliance with Libertarians. Indeed, the New Left and the nascent Libertarian Movement reached out for each other to battle the common enemy, Corporate Liberal Imperial Leviathan. Libertarian Movement founder Murray N. Rothbard traded votes with Maoists at New York Peace & Freedom Party conventions. Rothbard and historian Leonard Liggio started Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought to help forge a Libertarian alliance with the New Left. Carl Oglesby, 1965 president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), wrote an analysis of the U.S. Empire, Containment and Change, in which his prescription for defeating the Empire called explicitly for a coalition with the Libertarian “Old Right” as led by Rothbard and Liggio. And Karl Hess, speechwriter for the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964, determined by 1968 that he had more in common with the New Left than Buckley’s Right and penned his stirring “Death of Politics” Libertarian manifesto for Playboy magazine.
But those “Old Left” commune-statists were not, to use that familiar Trotskyist phrase, “decisively defeated on the proletarian terrain.” By the time of its 1969 convention, SDS expelled its anarchists and split between Maoists and WeatherMaoists. After a brief exhibition of street violence, the “vanguard” collapsed underground with an occasional eruption over the years. Also in 1969, Libertarian Rightists, inspired by Rothbard and led by Hess, walked out of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) convention to join the New Left. And unfortunately, even the first Libertarian Con that year in New York, which brought together disenfranchised SDS decentralists and YAF free-marketeers, also split — not on Left-Right lines but on revolutionary rage vs. quite academic movement-building lines.
Nonetheless, while the New Left went underground, or was partially co-opted into the university hierarchy, or simply dropped out for a couple of decades, the Libertarian Movement replayed the history that the socialists had suffered through. Although the movement grew from thousands to millions in less than a decade, it faced the same crisis of whether or not to form a political party in 1972 that the socialists had faced in 1900. Again, the majority of Libertarians opposed working within the system they were sworn to abolish. Again, the Establishment rewarded those who played the Establishment game by its rules. That part of the Libertarian Movement which became the so-called “Libertarian” Party became ever-more moderate in its demands for fear of alienating voters. Eventually, faced with a Republican Party tactical shift to the Free-Market Right (at least in rhetoric), starting with the Reagan “revolution,” the “Libertarian” Party found itself indistinguishable and buried under the Republican tide. Many of the LP right-wing correctly asked why they should waste their time in a third party.
What happened then, in both cases, is that the hardcore activists fell aside (or at least out of press coverage) in favor of those arguing for moderation in the pursuit of Power. We are now reaping the results of those choices.
The Radical Remnant of the New Left and of the New Libertarians remained, not all of them on sabbatical or underground. In the press, New Leftists appeared in The Nation, Z, and Britain’s excellent New Left Review, and the New Libertarians had New Libertarian magazine, Wally Conger’s out of step, and The Agorist Institute’s The Agorist Quarterly. In 1989, The Agorist Institute specifically launched New Isolationist, a newsletter bringing together anti-imperialist writings from both groups.
Thus, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Oglesby, Alexander Cockburn, Jon Rappoport, and Noam Chomsky from the New Left are aware of and interact with New Libertarians (or Left Libertarians) such as Samuel Edward Konkin III, Jeff Riggenbach, Jeff Hummel, E. Scott Royce, David Rosinger, and, the Daddy of us all, the late Karl Hess.
But why rebuild a Movement of the Libertarian Left now?
Well, what better time than now, when the opportunities for reversing the snowballing statism of the past century is so great? Leviathan is dying, and signs of it are everywhere: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the discrediting of state socialism, the proliferation of both secessionist and anti-tax movements here and abroad, and the destruction wreaked on the credibility of the electoral process and on the credibility of government itself by Election 2000.
Our job now is to hasten the death of the State.
In the short-term, we should work on specific goals in concert with both Left and Libertarian groups. There is no party-line. Disagreement is always “permitted.” Anyone may reject any suggested project or suggest the next. Strategists and tacticians sell their services and are only as good as their last sale. There are no leaders. Freedom in action follows from freedom in theory.
In the medium-range, we should build a New Libertarian Alliance (Revolutionary Agorist Cadre) of defenders of the Counter-Economy (the underground free market, aka “grey” and “black” market). The State “withers away” as each individual secedes from the statist society and goes counter-economic.
In the long-range, the Counter-Economy will overwhelm State Capitalism and State Socialism to produce a society based on voluntary interaction with a minimal amount of self-defense needed, which can be handled by ordinary market facilities. This society of free trade in goods and values is the agora.
The death of politics, heralded by Karl Hess more than 30 years ago and illustrated so beautifully by Election 2000 and the steadily growing nonvoting majority, eliminates the monopoly of legitimized coercion (the State). A stateless society is anarchy.
Our long-term politico-economic goals are summed up in our slogan:
Agora! Anarchy! Action!
We work with everyone who struggles against the State and its privileged class while we maximize our personal freedom. We can smash the State for fun and profit! Join us!
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