Rose Wilder Lane’s Journey from Communism to Individualism
Despite starting out as a communist, Rose Wilder Lane became a staunch advocate of individualism.
In the early twentieth century, liberalism was in retreat. Competing totalitarian ideologies like National Socialism and Communism were on the rise, as many intellectuals became convinced of the benefits of a comprehensive role for the state in organizing both the economy and society. The horrors of World War One further ruptured any remaining sense of liberal optimism; and in the aftermath of the Great Depression, capitalism seemed like an abject failure, boosting support for large‐scale state economic intervention.
But even when liberal ideas were in retreat, one woman did not flinch in her support for laissez‐faire individualism. This woman, Rose Wilder Lane, was a journalist, writer, and eventually, a political activist. She began her political life as a communist but became a dogged opponent of communism, fascism, and the policies of the New Deal. Lane has rightly been dubbed one of the mothers of the libertarian movement for her tireless efforts to bring about a world in which individuals, and not the State, decide their own fate.
Upbringing, Education, and Marriage
Rose Wilder Lane was born on December 5th, 1886, in De Smet, South Dakota. She grew up in a poverty‐stricken frontier household, with her earliest memories of hardships such as crop failures, illnesses, and debt. Her mother and father, Laura and Almanzo, eventually lost their farm due to years of consistent crop failures. They were forced to move first to Minnesota, to live with relatives, and then to Florida. After a brief return to South Dakota, the family finally settled in Mansfield, Missouri, where her parents established a new farm. When she was sixteen, Rose was sent to live with her aunt in Louisiana, who introduced her to the ideas of socialists such as Eugene Debs. Rose crammed three years of high school into one, graduating at the age of seventeen at the top of her class in 1903. Though she possessed an impressive intellect, Rose’s family had no way of financing her further education. She moved to Kansas City and worked the night shift as a Western Union telegraph clerk. But Rose did not stay put for long.
She moved to Indiana and then to San Francisco, California, where she met a traveling salesman by the name of Gillette Lane. Gillette supported himself through a variety of jobs, including writing, editing, ad sales, real estate, and so on. But he lacked ambition and was quite content to wander throughout the country earning just enough money to support himself. Rose quickly became unhappy in her marriage to Gillette, so she picked up the basics of writing and took freelance writing gigs to hone her skills and pay the bills. The couple had a child but, tragically, the infant baby was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Soon after, Rose underwent surgery, which left her unable to have any more children. Rose and Gillette separated and eventually divorced.
Seeing the World and Changing her Mind
Through a friend, Rose accepted a job offer as an editorial assistant at the San Francisco Bulletin. Rose longed to see Europe and wanted to work as a reporter, but the World War and personal circumstances prevented her travels until 1920 when she got to travel to Europe with the Red Cross, reporting on their relief efforts across the continent. Rose, along with a cadre of fellow journalists, traveled to Paris, Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Albania, Iraq, and a host of other countries. Rose imagined Europe to be the great jewel of the civilized world, but she was disappointed by what she observed: bureaucratic corruption, civil wars, lawlessness, and runaway inflation. At this point in her life, Rose was a communist, having won over by the speeches of John Reed, a communist journalist and activist most famous for his coverage of the October Revolution in Russia. But this dramatically changed when she visited the USSR, touring what is today the country of Georgia.
A Georgian family hosted her in a small village with a tradition of communally‐owned property. Though poor, the villagers were hard and skilled workers who were perfectly comfortable with a communist way of life. Thus when having tea with one of her hosts, she was shocked when he predicted that there would be chaos and widespread suffering if more power was centralized in Moscow. After Rose tried to explain the benefits of a planned economy, the farmer shook his head and said it will not work, “In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great head. No. Only God can know Russia.” A man born into a village which had communal ownership of property for generations had cut to the heart of the issue with communism. Controlling the economy of a willing and harmonious village inhabited by a single ethnic tribe was one thing, but managing a continent‐sized nation made up of many people groups and conflicting interests was beyond the abilities of even the most skilled bureaucrat.
Returning to America
Rose would later write that she “came out of the Soviet Union no longer a communist.” She began to realize America enjoyed a degree of freedom no other nation held. She wrote, “Like all Americans, I took for granted the individual liberty to which I had been born. It seemed as necessary and as inevitable as the air I breathed; it seemed the natural element in which human beings lived.” For Rose, the Soviet Union was “not an extension of human freedom, but the establishment of tyranny on a new, widely extended and deeper base.” She realized that economic control was not confined to simply controlling the economy in the abstract, but also control of people themselves. The economy is the aggregate of individual’s efforts to provide for themselves and their families. To control the economy necessitates telling people what to do; as Rose observed, “No man can so control multitudes of men without compulsion.” And humans are not like animals that merely repeat patterns; they are diverse, innovative, exploratory, and creative As a result, those seeking to control these human impulses must constantly expand their own repertoire of compulsion, engaging in a constant arms race against the free human spirit.
In Rose’s words, “It is the nature of men to do the same thing in different ways, to waste time and energy in altering the shapes of things, to experiment, invent, make mistakes, depart from the past in an infinite variety of directions.” But these efforts would be squashed in a planned economy that demanded conformity. Therefore economic control was not only inefficient but an attack on the fundamental nature of humans. She believed that “to control the economic processes of a modern nation is under a necessity, either to fail, or to tend to become absolute power in every province of human life.”
Back to the Frontier
One of the highest‐paid female writers in America, Rose generously gave her money to friends and family. This unfortunately caught up with her with the advent of the Great Depression in 1929, which demolished her investments, caused her to go into debt, and forced her to return to Missouri to care for her parents. Though she was somewhat resentful of her circumstances, she was undoubtedly loyal to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who most people know for the famous Little House on the Prairie series of children’s books.
But despite public perception otherwise, Laura Ingalls Wilder was not the sole author of her famous series. The biographer of Rose Wilder Lane, William Holtz, has shown that Rose undertook a project which involved massive rewriting and reworking of her mother’s original manuscript. Holtz points to many instances where the hand of Rose can be felt in the published text, for example in the Fourth of July sequence where a young Laura observes “Americans won’t obey any king on earth” and her determination when she is grown up that “there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders.”
Themes of independence, thrift, and self‐discipline form the core motifs of the Little House series. Thanks to Rose’s skill as an editor and her connections in publishing, Little House eventually became a massive publishing success. Over the years, the series has sold 40 million copies in the U.S. and 20 million more worldwide in 32 different languages. But Rose’s literary success was not relegated to merely being a hidden collaborator with her mother. Drawing upon her homesteading experiences yet again, Rose wrote two successful novels of her own, Let the Hurricane Roar in 1932 and Free Land in 1938.
Rose and the New Deal
As the Great Depression wore on, desperate politicians attempted to alleviate people’s suffering through the New Deal, expanding the American government’s scope and size to an unprecedented level. This was the catalyst for Rose becoming much more politically involved. By 1935, former communist Rose had become a firm advocate of individualism and laissez faire economics. She explained her individualism in a piece from March 1936 entitled “Credo,” in which she wrote that “Representative government cannot express the will of the mass of the people, because there is no mass of the people; The People is a fiction, like The State. You cannot get a Will of the Mass, even among a dozen persons who all want to go on a picnic… In actual fact, the population of a country is a multitude of diverse human beings with an infinite variety of purposes and desires and fluctuating wills.”
Three years after it’s initial publication, Leonard Read approached Lane about re‐publishing her essay. At the time, Read was known for his role as the General Manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce; today, libertarians recognize his name for establishing the Foundation for Economic Education and his authorship of the famous essay, “I, Pencil.” Read was impressed by Lane and republished Credo under the new title “Give Me Liberty” for a wider audience. In 1942 an editor named John Day Company asked Rose to write a book expanding her short essay into a more comprehensive philosophy, what would become Lane’s magnum opus, The Discovery of Freedom, which was published in 1943.
Discovery of Freedom
Many historians fall into the trap of discussing what the kings, emperors, dictators, and general assortment of great men have supposedly achieved throughout history. Rose observed that the supposed “great men” of history did not usher in any meaningful progress. The achievements of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte are in no way comparable to, say, that of Thomas Edison inventing the first light bulb. Rose focused her grand sweeping history on ordinary people’s efforts to secure prosperity, comfort, and ease for themselves and their families. Rose poses the question of why most of humanity lived in stultifying poverty for thousands of years, but then, all of a sudden over the course of a few hundred years, colossal gains were made in the form of unimaginable technology coupled with unprecedented material prosperity. Her answer is the title of the book, The Discovery of Freedom.
Rose explains that every person has a kind of energy that powers spontaneity, creativity, and drive, which are the prerequisites of discovery, invention, and progress. “Each living person is a source of this energy. There is no other source … individuals generate it, and control it.” This energy can only be generated by an individual, not by an external person; therefore, “each person is self‐controlling, and therefore responsible for his acts. Every human being, by his nature, is free.” Individuals are the only source of energy, therefore, governments must rely on individuals and not the other way around.
Often governments attempt to command and control the populace, but this snuffs out the individual will to create and experiment, thus leading to stagnation. Rose believed that strong centralized states are based on the premise that an outside authority of some sort either controls or ought to control individuals. But this idea is built on what Rose calls a pagan faith in fantastical, invisible authorities. The only system that can hope to harness the potential of human energy is one which leaves them free to pursue their goals without direction or compulsion. The state ought to secure some rights and essential safeguards for people, a basic guarantee of freedom, but beyond that, the state must refrain from intervening. Rose argued that this recipe for a free and prosperous society was what created the modern world. Thus the expansion of economic prosperity and technological innovation was not due to mechanical laws of nature or some form of historical determinism, but due to the realization of human freedom.
Combining Individualism and Anti‐Racism
From 1942 to 1945 Rose wrote columns for the Pittsburgh Courier, the most widely read black newspaper in America at the time. Under the enthusiastic leadership of Robert Lee Vann, the Courier undertook what they called the “double V” campaign, the ‘v’ standing for two victories, the victory against fascism overseas and the victory against Jim Crow at home. Rose had heard about the paper through a black woman who worked for her as domestic help. The paper caught Rose’s eye for the sheer variety of perspectives included among its authors, from Ted Le Berthon, a white drama critic, to Kumar Gohsal, an Indian ex‐pat and independence activist, S.I Hayakawa, a Japanese semanticist who later became a senator for California, and George S. Schuyler, a black man who had once held socialist beliefs but later turned into a libertarian conservative. The Pittsburgh Courier was a beacon of diverse and often provocative thought that went against both Left and Right impulses of the time.
Rose saw the Courier as an excellent opportunity to expound her vision of individualism to a wide readership. The result of her rarely read newspaper columns is one of the earliest efforts to fully integrate the philosophy of lassiez faire and individualism with anti‐racist attitudes. Her columns consistently stressed the real and authentic individual’s importance over against what she believed were fallacious constructs of race and class. Rose even went so far as to call on Americans to abandon the “ridiculous, idiotic and tragic fallacy of ‘race,’ [by] which a minority of the earth’s population has deluded itself during the past century.” At one point, Rose went further, urging people to renounce their race and embrace individualism.
Rose admitted before reading the Courier that she had unconsciously believed in the myth of the black race. She genuinely believed that lynchings and racial injustice were merely isolated incidents; but reading the Courier had changed her mind and shown her that she had been, in her own words, an “utter fool” and “a traitor to my country’s cause, the cause of human rights.” The humility she showed in admitting her wrongs is something we can still learn from today when faced with the atrocities of systemic racism and the subsequent denial of said atrocities by perhaps honest but certainly misinformed and misguided people. Rose explained that from a young age schools had taught white people “that whiteness is the ineradicable mark of superior race.” This created a myth that white people willingly accepted without question. She recommended remedying these errors by spreading a message of racial justice and by educating unwitting whites.
In her columns, Rose advocated for free‐market capitalism. But Rose’s enthusiasm for capitalism did not transfer as enthusiasm for individual capitalists. What Rose called, the “Big Boys” of industry had done their fair share of damage to capitalism by profiting from political connections to secure profits through regulatory laws stifling competition. Rose argued, in a strategy similar to contemporary bleeding heart libertarians, that capitalism and free markets benefited regular everyday people more than the kind of state‐controlled economy that New Dealers proposed. For Rose, a free economy was not something that could be planned by a few technocrats and enforced by the police. Instead, it was a spontaneous and virtuous order that resulted from the free choices of individuals.
In response to the Great Depression, she advocated for reviving free mutual associations to alleviate poverty (commonly called “mutual aid” today). Similarly, she argued for a decentralized system of education in which parents could send their children to whichever school best suited their preferences. In her final days at the Courier, she attacked property zoning, which she believed stripped individuals of the legal right to live in their own homes and instead merely allowed them to temporarily occupy it. Rose’s columns evinced a serious optimism about the hopes for a laissez‐faire future where “nearly everyone will know that all men are born equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.”
End of Rose’s Life
Following the publication of The Discovery of Freedom and the end of the Second World War, Lane never wrote another political philosophy book nor wrote much else of particular note bar a few columns and essays. From this point onwards, she dedicated herself wholly to creating a libertarian movement, a phrase she popularized. For many at the time, it looked like libertarianism was a fantasy; but in a letter to a fellow libertarian, Lane discussed how the climate of opinion was dramatically changing. Years before, few people had held libertarian beliefs, but with the establishment of new organizations and with new writers coming to the forefront, Rose believed the future of libertarianism was quite bright. Lane stayed busy writing, traveling, and lecturing, even reporting on the Vietnam War in 1965 at the age of 78. In 1968 Rose died peacefully in her sleep.
Rose’s Legacy Today
In her day, Rose Wilder Lane was a famous journalist, political activist, and author. Today her name is mostly spoken of in libertarian circles, and even then few know more than the fact of her libertarian beliefs and involvement in the Little House on the Prairie books. But Rose Wilder Lane is one of the three founding mothers of libertarianism, along with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand. Credo, The Discovery of Freedom, and her columns for the Pittsburgh Courier all expound a principled and unflinching love of individualism to their fullest extent. Spontaneity, creativity, and drive can only be harnessed, according to Rose, by leaving people free. But the lessons we learn from Rose do not just stem from her intellectual oeuvre but also from her life. She was a self‐taught and self‐disciplined woman who made something of herself even when the odds were heavily stacked against her from birth on the frontier. Rose’s writings came at a time when liberal ideas were at their ebb. Her passionate vision for a future not ushered in by governments but by free and energetic individuals set the foundation for the libertarian movement today.