In Nationalism and Culture, a classic history of libertarian ideas, Rudolf Rocker uses the struggle of freedom against power as his theoretical framework.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In my last essay I discussed the “lust for power” and how this theme has played a key role in classical liberal and libertarian thinking. I now wish to discuss how a brilliant libertarian historian, Rudolf Rocker (1873–1958), incorporated this theme into his history of libertarian ideas, Nationalism and Culture.

Rocker fled Germany in 1933, shortly after the Nazis had attained power. Almost everything that Rocker owned was seized (including 5000 books), and he escaped with little more than the manuscript of Nationalism and Culture. Between 1936 and 1939 translations of Rocker’s book were published in Spanish, English, and Dutch.

In his “Epilogue to the Second American Edition” (1946), Rocker writes:

In this book I have tried to present an outline of the most important causes of the general decline of our civilization; causes which, ever since the Franco‐​Prussian war of 1870–1871, became more and more apparent, and which a few years after the publication of this book, led to the monstrous catastrophe of World War II. Many things that had been predicted in this volume have later come to be literally true. That prognosis to be sure, was not so difficult to make.…

Rocker was an anarcho‐​syndicalist, so it should come as no surprise that he identified the growth of state power as the root cause of the catastrophe of WWII. Moreover, given that Rocker was a “left” anarchist, we would expect to find denunciations of “capitalism” in Nationalism and Culture. And so we do, though Rocker sometimes targets “state capitalism” specifically. What may surprise some readers is Rocker’s fair‐​minded and highly sympathetic historical account of classical liberalism, including its laissez‐​faire tendencies. Rocker, a remarkably learned historian, understood the basic reasons for both the rise and the fall of classical liberalism. Indeed, despite my predictable disagreements with Rocker, I rank Nationalism and Culture as one of the finest intellectual histories of classical liberalism ever written. I will examine some details of Rocker’s history of classical liberalism in a subsequent part of this series. In this part I wish to discuss his general theoretical perspective.

Rocker categorically repudiates the standard Marxian approach to history, according to which historical events and institutions are strictly determined by economic factors–most notably, by the prevalent mode of production. Rocker rejects all attempts to reduce historical causation to one type of cause: “All social phenomena are the result of a series of various causes, in most cases so inwardly related that it is quite impossible clearly to separate one from the other.” Social events and institutions do not arise from mechanistic causes; they are not the “deterministic manifestations of a necessary course of events” but emerge from purposeful human actions. And since “every idea of purpose is a matter of belief which eludes scientific calculation,” social phenomena are contingent rather than necessary, a matter of probability rather than certainty. We cannot say of a particular social process that it must be so, but only, “It may be so, but it does not have to be so.” Social facts are explained by referring “to the beliefs of men.”

Thus, although the historian must employ causal analysis, this is not the kind of analysis that we find in the natural sciences. The history of human events has not been determined by impersonal forces or by necessary laws of development. History is “the great arena of human aims and ends,” so the historian must take into account the ideas and values of individual human beings. Although man is subject to physical laws–he cannot change his biological nature, for example–his actions are not determined by physical necessity. Man’s social life is shaped by his willing and doing and so can be changed by volitional effort. If people view their social condition as foreordained by God or as the outcome of unalterable laws, this may instill in them a passive attitude about social change. But if people understand that social life is conditional, that it can be “changed by human hand and human mind,” this belief may encourage them to work for a better society. Social and economic conditions will obviously influence our actions, but our actions are ultimately shaped by our subjective beliefs and attitudes about those selfsame conditions.

According to Rocker, a major motive in human history has been the “lust for power,” or the “will to power.”

The will to power, which always emanates from individuals or from small minorities in society, is in fact a most important driving force in history. The extent of its influence has up to now been regarded far too little, although it has frequently been the determining factor in the shaping of the whole of economic and social life.

Rocker cites the conquests of Alexander the Great to illustrate his contention that the will to power has played a more fundamental role throughout history than have purely economic factors.

There are historical events of the deepest significance for millions of men which cannot be explained by their purely economic aspects. Who would maintain, for instance, that the invasions of Alexander were caused by the conditions of production in his time? The very fact that the enormous empire Alexander cemented together with the blood of hundreds of thousands fell to ruin soon after his death proves that the military and political achievements of the Macedonian world were not historically determined by economic necessities. Just as little did they in any way advance the conditions of production of the time. When Alexander planned his wars, lust for power played a far more important part then economic necessity. The desire for world conquest had assumed actually pathological forms in the ambitious despot. His mad power obsession was a leading motive in his whole policy.…

Rocker maintains that freedom and power are the two great forces that have shaped human history. Freedom is the creative engine of society–the sphere of spontaneous order in which individuals interact voluntarily. Power, in stark contrast, is the sphere of authoritarian control and governmental coercion in which some people attempt to control others through law or other threats of physical violence.

In all epochs of that history which is known to us, two forces are apparent that are in constant warfare. Their antagonism, open or veiled, results from the intrinsic difference between the forces themselves and between the activities in which they find expression. This is clear to anyone who approaches the study of human social structures without ready‐​formulated hypotheses or fixed schemes of interpretation, especially to anyone who sees that human objectives and purposes are not subject to mechanical laws, as are cosmic events in general. We are speaking here of the political and economic elements in history, which could also be called the governmental and social elements.

Rocker presents an interesting sociological analysis of power and freedom. Power, which is based on a consciousness of authority, cannot tolerate opposition to its will and so tends to become absolute. Different power groups within a society will struggle for supremacy, while sovereign states will seek to dominate other states. Concessions and compromises may be made because of weakness, but these are merely temporary. Power, by its very nature, seeks “to bring everything under one rule, to unite mechanically and to subject to its will every social activity.” The will to power, which is inherent in human nature, is hostile to individuality, social diversity, and change; it demands the conformity of every social activity to a definite norm. And since there is no rational basis for this conformity, the claims of power must ultimately rely on mystification and faith. Even when rulers are unable to expand their sphere of influence, they must at least convey to their faithful subjects “the illusion of the boundlessness of this influence” and thereby reinforce their mystical authority.

The exercise of power requires the bifurcation of humanity into two classes, the rulers and the ruled. This division into higher and lower classes, which occurs in every power structure, is generated by “an inner necessity” of power itself. Power is necessarily hegemonic, because rulers must claim for themselves rights and (supposedly) legitimate powers that they deny to others. And it is in order to make this hegemonic relationship seem inevitable that rulers appeal to the prescriptive authority of tradition and legend. We see this in Plato’s defense of the state, in which class divisions are attributed to fate and explained metaphorically. God, according to Plato, created the ruling class from gold (the most precious metal, naturally), the military class from silver, and the laboring class from iron and bronze. Plato’s effort to imbue power with a “mystic sanctity” has, says Rocker, been “the chief aim of every power policy.”

Power has no creative capacity whatever: “Nothing is more erroneous than the customary view of the state as the real creator of cultural progress.” Throughout history the state has been the greatest enemy of culture; they are “irreconcilable opposites,” the strength of one depending on the weakness of the other. Culture flourishes best when the state is weak or dying.

Culture is not created by command. It creates itself, arising spontaneously from the necessities of men and their social cooperative activity. No ruler could ever command men to fashion the first tools, first use fire, invent the telescope and the steam engine, or compose the Iliad. Cultural values do not arise by direction of higher authorities. They cannot be compelled by dictates nor called into life by the resolution of legislative assemblies.

In no civilization has culture been created by political rulers. At most, rulers have appropriated an already existing culture and made it subservient to their own political ends. Such appropriation, however, has always led to the decline of culture, owing to the political demand for uniformity. Power is motivated by a “stupid desire” to force all cultural activity into a pre‐​established, single pattern. Rulers cannot tolerate the innovation and diversity on which cultural progress depends, because these require an autonomous sphere of freedom that is immune to power–and to acknowledge the limitations of power is inconsistent with the inner logic of political dominion. Cultural progress is a spontaneous development of freedom; and since the social effects of freedom cannot be predicted or controlled, culture is as much a threat to power as freedom itself. Culture “stands above all state organizations and lordly institutions, and is in its innermost essence anarchistic.”

The modern nation is a creation of the state, not the people; it is a political artifice, not a social institution. Social institutions grow spontaneously from the interactions of individuals, and they serve the general interest. State organizations, in contrast, are designed to serve the interests of the political class, and they are imposed on the people by their rulers. When we speak of “the people” as a collective noun, we are referring to a natural social unit, a mutual association of individuals who share the same language, inhabit the same general area, and possibly have other traits in common. This natural unit, which is held together by the inner relationships of its members, can neither be artificially created nor dissolved. The nation, on the other hand, is “the artificial result of the struggle for political power,” a unity that has been imposed on the people from above.

Peoples and groups of peoples (societies) are spontaneous associations that existed long before the state, whereas nations are products of state activity. Various peoples–who, owing to their different languages and ethnic backgrounds, might naturally form different communities–have frequently been forged by the state into a single nation, a political entity with territorial boundaries. This coercive transformation of natural social groups into nations has bred suspicion and hatred between peoples, a morbid condition that rulers seek to perpetuate as a means of enhancing their own power and prestige. Nations, which are based on artificial rather than on natural distinctions, would tend to disintegrate unless rulers fanned the nationalistic flames of antagonism and discord.