The Proto-Libertarian Networks
SEK3’s agorist philosophy emerges from the left-libertarian tendency that has snaked through the conventional history of American libertarianism, often just outside of view. American libertarianism, of course, brings to mind instantly the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, John Stossel, Reason Magazine, the Cato Institute – that tangled network of big business apologists and their corporate backers. From this perspective, the notion of a “left-libertarianism” might seem to be a contradictory, or even possible one – especially when one considers that many people affiliated with ‘right-libertarian’ (and its leaner and meaner cousin, anarcho-capitalism) have cycled through the left-libertarian camp.
In his own history of left-libertarianism, SEK3 traces it back to four figures and the institutions with which they intertwined. The first of these individuals was Albert Jay Nock, the noted anti-war activist, Georgist, and editor of The Freeman between 1920 and 1924. A “philosophical anarchist”, Nock would become a staunch critic of the New Deal in the 1930s and a figurehead in the Old Right coalition. He also was the mentor to the second figure, Frank Chodorov; like Nock, Chodorov was a Georgist, and an anti-war and anti-New Deal Old Right icon. Also like Nock, he became the editor of a magazine called The Freeman, though this second one was not a direct descendent of the first. Chodorov’s The Freeman became the fertile soil from which a proto-libertarianism had begun to emerge, one that was tentatively linked to the Old Right coalition but increasingly seen as separate. In 1953 Chodorov launched the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI), an education and outright organization. William F. Buckley Jr., who within two years would launch the infamous conservative journal National Review, was tapped as ISI’s first president. If the line running from Nock to Chodorov would be the thread linking the Old Right to American libertarianism, it was Buckley who would be the thread running outward to the New Right.
The third figure is Murray Rothbard, who at the time these networks were being developed was an economics student at Columbia University. Across the 1940s he was closely aligned with the proto-libertarians, blending their leanings towards ‘philosophical anarchism’, their anti-war perspectives and general anti-government rhetoric with the Austrian School approach to economics. Existing only on the fringe margins of academia, Rothbard attracted the attention of the William Volker Fund (which was subsidizing the ISI and the Foundation for Economic Education, a New York-based educational organization that employed Ludwig von Mises and published Chodorov’s The Freeman); the organization would become one of his primary benefactors until its controversy-induced collapse in 1964. During this time period Rothbard would develop his own close-knit intellectual community, dubbed the “Cercle Bastiat”, the name a reference to the French economist and classical liberal Claude-Frédéric Bastiat.
The fourth and final figure in SEK3’s pantheon is Robert Lefebvre, a businessman and early proponent of what the more contemporary understanding of American libertarianism. Like Rothbard, he embraced the Austrian School’s economic doctrines, and like Nock he considered himself something of an anarchist. Anarchism, however, did not fully sit well with Lefebvre, as he felt that there was a tension between anarchism and Austrian-inspired individualism. His synthesis of the two became known as “autarchism”, Greek for “belief in self-rule”. In 1957 he established the Freedom School in Colorado to help propagate autarchism; in 1963, this would be followed with the Rampart Institute.
Towards the Left
The turn from the Old Right to the New Right came with the arrival on the political stage of Barry Goldwater. Like the Old Right, Goldwater espoused an anti-New Deal platform, but unlike his predecessors he supported an interventionist politics aimed at rolling back the influence of communism worldwide. This hardline stance on the Soviet system of government and communism as a philosophical system attracted post-Old Left proto-libertarians like William Buckley, who in 1960 organized a youth-oriented grassroots movements for Goldwater – the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). The creation of the organization would be a watershed moment in American political history, as evidenced by the organization’s famed 1962 Madison Square Gardens rally that has become subsequently known as the “birthplace of the conservative movement.”
Others were less inclined to follow the drive towards the New Right. Notably, Rothbard himself was amongst these ranks, and he subsequently began drifting towards the burgeoning New Left Movement, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in particular. SDS has its origin in the youth-wing of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), a notable Old Left institution closely intertwined with the big labor bureaucracies that had come to domination the New Deal coalition (in this case, the AFL-CIO, an alliance that would lay much of the foundation for modern neoconservativism, as I have laid out elsewhere). In 1960 the SDS broke from the LID and repudiated the Old Left as whole. The bureaucracy of organized labor itself came under fire, with SDSers drawing heavily on the ‘revisionist histories’ presented by C. Wright Mills and Gabriel Kolko, both of whom had presented sociological and historical analyses of how class power operated in the United States. Kolko was of particular interest to the SDS: his 1963 book The Triumph of Conservatism, for example, provided a detailed tracing of the way corporate moderates had shaped the allegedly left-leaning social policies of the “Progressive Era”. Rothbard began to assimilate these works into his own projects, giving rise to the “libertarian class analysis” that I’ll cover shortly. Much of this new trajectory was fleshed out in Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian thought, launched in 1965 with the explicit intent of bringing together the anti-New Right libertarians with the New Left.
Joining Rothbard in launching Left and Right was Karl Hess, who at the outset of the 1960s been a rising star in the New Right, a firm believer in the integration of Old Right concerns with anti-communist militarism. He had even become Goldwater’s chief speechwriter, but an encounter with the writings of the SDS sent him down a different path, as he would later recount in a 1976 interview:
I’m still holding out for the same old values I always supported. The only difference is that I’ve changed my mind about the identity of the good guys and the bad guys. The New Left now seems to me to be espousing the causes that the Old Right once stood up for: individual responsibility and self-determination.
Hess would join the SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World, and later in the 1960s could be found associating with far-left icons like Murray Bookchin, one of the earliest proponents of ecological anarchism, the Black Panthers, and those associated with the Whole Earth Catalog.
Hess was not the only figure to circulate between Goldwater-style republicanism and the New Left. In the early part of the 1960s, students at Robert Lefebvre’s Freedom School had founded a journal called The Innovator with one Kerry Thornley serving as editor; Thornley, later known for his travels on the wilder-and-woollier end of the countercultural spectrum, pushed for a libertarian-New Left alliances. Recruiting took place within the Goldwater camp and the YAF, leading to an internal left-wing inside the New Right. There was movement between the subaltern movement and the libertarian tendency that was forming in the New Left across the 1960s, but the two paths would ultimately cross at the dawn of the 1970s when the YAF carried out a membership purge. This, in turn, had been precipated by an encounter with the “Anarchist Caucus” (AC) in 1969, which had resulted in a physical altercation between the leftists who sided with the AC and the rights who attacked them.
The AC itself had emerged from the Radical Libertarian Alliance (RLA), an organization set-up by Rothbard and Hess with the goal of bringing together the left-libertarians with the New Left. As John L. Kelly recounts, the RLA arrived on the scene just in time to observe the breakdown of the SDS:
RLA members from New York and Virginia attended the June 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago, hoping to attract allies from the left. Unfortunately, they arrived just when the SDS was imploding into fratricidal combat between its Revolutionary Youth Movement and the Progressive Labor Party elements. In the chaos of that climactic the RLA did, however, manage to attract several SDS chapters, including [the] Lysander Spooner SDS chapter. These groups joined with dissident Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapters to form an Anarchist Caucus. (Kelly, Bringing the Market Back In, pgs. 99-100)
Janet Biehl’s biography of Murray Bookchin paints the anarchist as front and center to the formation of the caucus, writing that as the Revolutionary Youth Movement and the Progressive Labor Party traded blows and fought for control of the SDS, “Bookchin had found enough sympathizers, alienated by posturing, to form an anarchist caucus. About 250 met in the old IWW hall nearby and voted to endorse ‘The Radical Decentralist Project’ as their program.” (Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe, pg. 124)
As the 60s faded into the 1970s, attempts to organize a revolutionary force from these myriad of interwoven strands abounded. In February of 1970, Lefebvre’s Rampart Institute hosted the California Libertarian Alliance conference, organized by former members of the YAF who had been purged and aimed at networking together the left and right. Amongst the attendees was SEK3, who at this point enters into the story as someone who took up the cumbersome task of trying to organize a left-libertarian – or, more explicitly, a left-Rothbardian – alliance.
Up through the 1980s SEK3 produced a slew of interrelated organizations, all furnished with similar names and acronyms. These included the New Libertarian Alliance (NLA), founded in 1974 as an underground society committed to spreading the use of agorism, and the Movement of the Libertarian Left in 1978. This latter organization was, as Kevin Carson describes, “as an above-ground counterpart to the NLA.” Through both groups and through a slew of journals, the theory of agorism and SEK3’s Rothbard-inspired “radical libertarian class analysis” trickled through the libertarian sphere. In 1974, the Libertarian Party, led by Edward H. Crane, had conducted a purge of its left-libertarian “radical caucus”; many of these individuals, in turn, became the foundation of the left-libertarian network.
Not all affiliated with the broader libertarian movement were impressed, much less Rothbard himself. SEK3’s style of left-libertarian resolutely rejected interacting with the levers of state power, while Rothbard was firmly committed to furthering the goals of the libertarian movement through electoral politics. In his response to SEK3’s New Libertarian Manifesto, Rothbard slashed out at his colleague-turned-opponent:
It is good to have the New Libertarian Manifesto in more or less systematic form for assessment and criticism. Until now, the Konkinian vision has only been expressed in scattered pot-shots at his opponents, often me… In this particular case, Konkin is trying to cope with the challenge I laid down years ago to the anti-party libertarians: O.K., what is your strategy for the victory of liberty? I believe Konkin’s agorism to be a total failure, but at least he has tried, which is to his credit, and puts him in a class ahead of his anti-party confreres, who usually fall back on fasting, prayer, or each one finding ways to become a better and more peaceful person, none of which even begins to answer the problem of State power, and what to do about it.
Back to the Right
The networks established by SEK3’s network have persisted right into the modern era. Carson writes that
In 1999, Konkin founded the LeftLibertarian yahoogroup, the venue through which I first came into contact with him, his ideas, and his wide circle of friends. I had several years of stiulating discussion there that influenced my development to no end. In 2007, three years after Konkin’s death, the list imploded over a political dispute between J. Neil Schulman and just about everybody else, and most of the important figures in Konkin’s circle migrated to the Left-Libertarian2 group. Konkin’s old yahoogroup is pretty much an empty shell, although Neil Schulman and Kent Hastings stayed with it (and the archives are well worth digging into). Because of a similar dispute with Neil over the rights to the name “Movement of the Libertarian Left”, several members of LeftLibertarian2 collaborated to form a successor organization, the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. Again, just about all the leading figures in the old MLL migrated to the ALL and left the old body as an empty shell owned by Schulman…. Just by looking at the links on the Alliance of the Libertarian Left site, or clicking the movement’s associated blog ring, the Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left, you can find a wide range of sites hosted by Konkin’s old fightin’ comrades from the St. Louis days, more recent disciples of left-Rothbardianism and Counter-economics, and some even newer left-wing friends like me, who–despite never having considered ourselves followers of Rothbard or Konkin–have been strongly influenced by their thought.
While always a minor tendency in the wider libertarian movement, the detailed history of this strand has remained largely unknown, even after the term “libertarian” became once again everyday language in the wake of the Tea Party. In a time when libertarian pundits pointed fingers at people with ties to former 60s radicals as some sort of way to discredit opponents, the idea that a movement emerging from the Old Right moved in the same waters of the Old Left seems incomprehensible. It has been in the Libertarian Party’s best interest to relegate these parts of its heritage to the dustbins of history.
One might note that Crane’s purge of the radical caucus corresponds, in time, roughly to the rise of neoliberalism as a figure binding together the New Right. Crane’s goal was to ‘legitimize’ the Libertarian Party, to craft it into a potent political force for his own ambitions. When these fail through, Crane turned to some very familiar figures and landed himself a position as the Cato Institute’s first president:
After the Libertarian Party candidate was predictably crushed in his 1976 presidential quest, Crane, who had been instrumental in the campaign, was ready to go back to the private sector. Instead, Charles [Koch], whom he’d met during the campaign, took him aside and asked him what it would take to keep him in the libertarian movement. “I said my bank account is empty,” Crane later recalled. “He said ‘how much do you need?’” “A libertarian think-tank might be nice,” Crane answered… Crane became Cato’s president, but early employees at Cato describe Charles as single-handedly exerting iron control.” (Jane Mayer, Dark Money)
On hand to assist the setting up of the Cato Institute was Rothbard. Whatever misgivings the he had had with SEK3 and the left-libertarians, they were exacerbated in this time period. SEK3 would recall that
Relations between [Murray Rothbard] and SEK3 were maximally strained during 1977 when Rothbard joined the Kochtopus and moved to San Francisco. Rothbard was described as the “Darth Vader” of the Movement (Star Wars had just been released). Rothbard lashed back with his attack on the “space cadets” of science-fiction oriented libertarians, and was attacked himself within the [Libertarian Party] by “space cadets” who labeled his faction “grubeaters.” But Rothbard had a falling out during the 1980 Clark for President campaign with Crane who controlled the campaign, and his “shares” in Cato were confiscated by the other Board members. NL promptly supported Rothbard in his cry, “They stole my shares” and relations were largely repaired.
As Jane Mayer has noted “Some suspected Rothbard… was fired for criticizing [Charles] Koch… Rothbard accused Charles of dictating everything from the office décor to the design of Cato’s stationary… Rothbard also accused Charles of using nonprofit organizations to ‘acquire access to, and respect from, influential people in the government.’” (Mayer, Dark Money) By this time, however, Rothbard would be drifting toward a very non-neoliberal position on the right: that of the paleoconservatives (for more on paleoconservativism, see my essay here). In 1982, alongside Llewellyn Rockwell, Rothbard launched the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and within a few years they sought a political alliance with right-wing populism, labeling their own position as that of “paleolibertarianism”. Self-described “bleeding-heart libertarian” Steve Horowitz has given a succinct run-down of this transformation:
By the mid-80s though, conservatism was hot, thanks to Reagan, and the internal strife of the movement pitted Murray Rothbard against the Koch Brothers, with the accusation by Rothbard that the liberal libertarians were undermining the movement’s ability to appeal to a broader audience thanks to their supposed libertinism. Murray wanted the hippies out… This led to the paleolibertarian strategy by the end of the decade after Rothbard broke with the Kochs and helped Lew Rockwell found the Mises Institute… It was about appealing to the worst instincts of working/middle class conservative whites by creating the only anti-left fusion possible with the demise of socialism: one built on cultural issues… The paleo strategy was a horrific mistake, both strategically and theoretically, though it apparently made some folks (such as Rockwell and Paul) pretty rich selling newsletters predicting the collapse of Western civilization at the hands of the blacks, gays, and multiculturalists.
Thus the cleavage was complete. Between the two poles of the Koch-driven libertarian variant of neoliberalism and the paleolibertarianism promoted by the Rothbard and Rockwell, the synthesis was set for the conditions of libertarian discourse across the 1990s and 2000s. This synthesis itself would come to pass in the Tea Party, which saw the Koch interests attempting to appeal to the populist grassroots that the paleolibertarian movement had galvanized – and also saw the ultimate failure of this strategy. With mainstream libertarianism becoming increasing indistinguishable from neoliberalism itself, and the eclipsing of paleolibertarianism by the alt-right, it seems more pertinent than ever that the broader, fractured left rekindle its dialogue with the libertarian-left, itself now witnessing growth.
In the next post, I’ll take up the “libertarian class analysis” as it was developed by Rothbard and SEK3, and compare and contrast it with more traditionally socialist and anarchist modes of class analysis.