"It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men." ~ H.L. Mencken
Why Not Reclaim the Left?
A decade ago, Justin Raimondo wrote Reclaiming the American Right. It was a rousing mix of Old Right history and modern manifesto that called on libertarians to join conservatives in a new “Paleo-Right” movement--individualist, anti-statist, and anti-war.
This month, Raimondo’s done an angry about-face. He’s fed up with right-wing dallying. He’s been pushed not to the wall but through it by the Cato Institute’s surrender to the hysteric War on Terrorism. On his Antiwar.com website, Raimondo now urges libertarians to abandon the Right to neoconservative militarists. He encourages them to get back to their classical liberal roots . . . on the Left.
“As the world plummets toward some neocon Ragnarok in the Middle East, with the Right agitating for an all-out invasion not only of Iraq but of Saudi Arabia and beyond,” Raimondo writes, “it is high time for libertarians to orient themselves to the antiwar, anti-authoritarian resistance, wherever it arises. In practice, what this means is re-orienting our efforts to focus on the Left.”
Raimondo admits that realigning libertarianism with the left wing isn’t a new idea. The late Murray Rothbard first suggested it in the 1960s. Rothbard said libertarians historically belonged not on the Right but on the furthest Left anyway. During the French Revolution, the despotic Old Order sat on the right side of the assembly hall, with classical laissez-faire liberals seated on the left. So from then until the rise of socialism in the mid-19th century, classical liberals were the Left, the party of liberty, peace, and progress. Then liberals allowed socialists to outflank them strategically and pose as “the Left.” Political terminology was turned on its head. Socialists became “liberals.” Liberals became “conservatives.” Rothbard said phooey to all that.
The once “conservative Republican” Rothbard exhorted libertarians to recognize their past and ally themselves with the New Left, from which had sprung the anarchistic, anti-imperialist “Port Huron Statement.” He and other libertarians shared podiums with Leftists like Paul Goodman and Carl Oglesby. At the end of the ’60s, many libertarians--most of them, like myself, student members of the Young Americans for Freedom--followed Rothbard and former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess out of the right wing to build coalitions with the Left. An exchange of interesting strategic and tactical ideas ensued, but the fusion didn’t hold ultimately.
Is there, today, enough common ground between Leftists and libertarians to build a brand new coalition to smash Corporate Leviathan? Well, the Left’s “official” leadership is now a toothless lapdog to the Democratic Party, on the verge of hanging its “out of business” shingle. The commies are out of the picture. But a “Newer” New Left is growing, made up mostly of young anarchists. A new anti-war movement is flowering on campuses in response to the current War Without End. A mass anti-IMF/World Bank movement has been up and rolling for a couple of years. (Remember Seattle, Quebec, Washington, DC?) As Raimondo writes: “[The Left] is where all the vitality, the rebelliousness, the willingness to challenge the rules and strictures of an increasingly narrow and controlled national discourse resides.”
One group of radical libertarians has been laying the groundwork for a day of reconciliation with the Left since 1978. And they’ve actually made inroads. The Movement of the Libertarian Left (MLL) was founded by Samuel Edward Konkin III with this goal: to develop a coherent, long-term, non-political, anti-party strategy consistent with hard-core Rothbardian theory. Konkin and other Libertarian Leftists now interact regularly with New Leftists like Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Oglesby, Jon Rappoport, and Noam Chomsky. MLL has a web page, a busy e-list, and newsletters and pamphlets appear frequently under its banner.
So the ground seems fertile for libertarians to forge alliances with the Left. And who knows? We might even “outflank” the socialists eventually and reclaim the Left for libertarianism!
Now, how do we approach the Left? And who do we approach specifically?
Obviously, we shouldn’t bother with lefties whose goals are generally hostile to individual freedom. But I think we can work with a growing number of today’s young Left anarchists, with one proviso: abolition of the State must be their primary focus. Much contemporary anarchist literature, sadly, suggests that smashing governments is secondary to destroying businesses and shaping communal utopias. As the hardest of hard-core anarchists, we can’t waste time with such socialist sentimentality. Our first duty is to stamp out all political power. But keep in mind that since we radical libertarians consider corporations creatures of the State and would abolish them to free the market, some of our laissez-faire ideas might intrigue and even persuade potential comrades on the anti-market Left.
We should, jointly and individually, dedicate ourselves to studying diverse Leftist movements--animal rights radicals, feminists, poverty crusaders, AIDS activists--to determine with whom we have points in common, or with whom we at least share some issues. This means we must tirelessly monitor Leftist magazines, journals, newsletters, and websites. The Nation, Z, andCounterPunch are a good start.
Opposition to war, the undeniable health of the State, is the one barometer we can rely on to judge suitable allies. We should feel free to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any Leftists at anti-war demonstrations, seminars, teach-ins, film festivals, etc. The anti-war issue is fundamental to our cause.
This may sound elementary, but we should take time to study or refresh ourselves in the insights of Etienne de la Boetie, the civil disobedience of Thoreau, and the non-violent resistance tactics of Gandhi. These ideas are fundamental to consistent non-political libertarian strategy. Possessing a “leftist hue,” they also offer good common ground for reaching out to the Left.
Principled libertarians now stand at a crossroads. The Cato Institute and the so-called “Libertarian” Party, now mere front groups for the warmongering right-wing, have hammered a wedge into the libertarian movement. So I applaud Justin Raimondo’s call for a libertarian rapprochement with the Left. We have a lot to talk about, and I look forward to the coming dialogue.
In the meantime, those afraid to make a sharp left turn and join us should heed Samuel Edward Konkin III’s suggestion to “wake up and smell the tear gas!” And to those courageous enough to shrug off the right-wing, unite with other staunch enemies of the State, and reclaim the Left for libertarians, I say, “Forward to liberty!”