Smith explains Rocker’s theory of why the ideas of classical liberalism were swamped by the rising tide of statism.

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 The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism , I explain that, beginning in the seventeenth century and for 250 years thereafter, the most common objection to the theory of natural rights was that it is unable to justify a sovereign state in any form. When Edmund Burke called natural rights “a digest of anarchy” and when Jeremy Bentham similarly condemned natural rights as “anarchical fallacies,” they were repeating a criticism with a long and distinguished provenance.

A refreshing feature of Nationalism and Culture is Rudolf Rocker’s appreciation for the crucial role that the theory of natural rights has played in the defense of individual freedom against the power of the state. Rocker also understood that the anarchistic implications of natural‐​rights theory were the primary reason why defenders of state power attacked that theory so vigorously.

The uninterrupted attempts to keep the state’s power within certain limits have always led logically to the conclusion that the solution of this question is not sought in the limitation of political power, but in its overthrow. This exhausts the last and highest doctrine of natural rights. This also explains why natural rights have always been a thorn in the flesh of representatives of the unlimited‐​power idea….

Nationalism and Culture contains an excellent historical overview of natural‐​rights theory, the origins of which, Rocker contends, can be found in the ideas defended by some ancient Sophists, Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics. I shall not here review Rocker’s account of natural‐​rights theory or his broader historical account of libertarian ideas generally. Suffice it to say that Rocker’s explanations are usually on‐​point and well worth reading.

In this essay I wish to explain Rocker’s explanation of why classical liberal and libertarian ideas eventually lost the battle with statism. He attributes this tragic outcome to the popularity of two interrelated doctrines that began to take off in the late eighteenth century, namely theories of nationalism and democracy.

According to Rocker, nationalism became a powerful force in Europe after the French Revolution, and this notion was closely affiliated with Rousseau’s idea of a “general will” that is manifested in and enforced by the state. Having gained the right to participate in political decision‐​making, people began to think of themselves as equal parts of a unified whole, the nation‐​state, which gave meaning and direction to their lives. This perspective severed democracy from its roots in liberal individualism. Whereas liberalism had viewed political organizations as a means of securing the rights and freedom of individuals, many defenders of democracy now upheld the duty of individuals to subordinate their interests to the greater good of the nation. Thus did democracy endorse the collective concept of the state and embrace political rulers as representatives of the common will.

Rocker was by no means the first person to comment on the tension between democracy and freedom: Edmund Burke made the same observation in 1790, as did Alexis de Tocqueville a few decades later. But Burke was a conservative Whig, and Tocqueville, though somewhat more of a liberal than Burke, was far removed from the anarchistic perspective of Rudolf Rocker. What distinguishes Rocker’s analysis is his sympathetic treatment of natural rights and social contract theory, such as we find in John Locke and his followers – an approach that Burke vehemently repudiated. Rocker argues that modern nationalism and its democratic appeal to the “will of the people” were a serious departure from the principles and goals of liberal individualism.

The fact is that the political development of the last hundred and fifty years was not along the lines that liberalism had hoped for. The idea of reducing the functions of the state to a minimum has not been realized. The state’s field of activity was not laid fallow; on the contrary, it was mightily extended and multiplied, and the so‐​called ‘liberal parties,’ which gradually got deeper and deeper into the current of democracy, have contributed abundantly to this end. In reality the state has not become liberalized but only democratized. Its influence on the personal life of man has not been reduced; on the contrary, it has steadily grown.

Liberalism began as a protest against the absolute sovereignty of monarchical governments, so it is understandable why liberalism, in its early stages, sometimes contrasted the sovereignty of the people or nation with the sovereignty of hereditary monarchs. But this appeal, which was originally intended to weaken the power of governments, was later transformed into a rationale for the expansion of power. The “will of the people,” as expressed in popular elections, became the ultimate political good, an irresistible power that trampled under foot the rights of individuals.

Liberalism judges the value of political organizations in terms of how well they facilitate the individual’s quest for happiness, as determined by the individual himself or herself. Free associations are the spontaneous byproduct of this quest; political institutions are valued as means to an end and should be repudiated when they no longer facilitate freedom. “The less this natural course of things is affected by forceful interference and mechanical regulation from the outside, the freer and more frictionless will be all social procedure and the more fully can man enjoy the happiness of his personal freedom and independence.”

Although classical liberals believed that some government is desirable, they viewed it as a necessary evil and sought to restrict its power “to the smallest possible field of activity.” The state, they argued, had a right to exist only so long as its functionaries concerned themselves with the protection of rights. Hence the primary focus of liberalism was on the security and freedom of the individual.

The starting point of modern democratic theory was not the individual but a collective concept, such as the people or society. Individuals in democratic theory were reduced to mere abstractions, interchangeable units that were dubbed “free” so long as they could participate in the collective decision making of their political community. This premise, which was wholly incompatible with the individualistic foundation of liberalism, resulted in “a fictitious concept of freedom” that “could only lead to results disastrous to the independence of human personality.”

In its extreme form nationalism gave birth to fascism in Italy and to National Socialism in Germany. Mussolini, Rocker points out, started out as a classical liberal. Just a few years before his rise to power, Mussolini condemned the “state, this Moloch of frightful countenance, [that] receives everything, knows everything, and ruins everything.” Unlike an earlier time when the state was endurable because it functioned solely as soldier and policeman in an effort to protect the rights of individuals, the state has since become “that frightful machine which swallows living men and spews them out again as dead ciphers.” Mussolini warned that “we are approaching a complete destruction of human personality.” Only later did Mussolini, with the prospect of absolute power in view, experience something akin to a religious revelation that changed his mind about the state.

In 1931 the official philosopher of fascism, Giovanni Gentile, rejected the liberal doctrine, according to which the state is based on natural rights and mutual agreement, in favor of Hegel’s doctrine that the state is the highest form of the objective intellect and is therefore necessary for the full realization of ethical self‐​consciousness. But Hegel did not go far enough, according to Gentile, for he conceded a certain autonomy to the intellectual realms of art, religion, and philosophy. Gentile insisted that even these endeavors should serve the state – and thus we see the modern theory of totalitarianism that denies to the individual any sphere of personal autonomy. This, Rocker observes, “is the last word of a trend of political thought [nationalism] which in its abstract extreme loses sight of everything human and has concern for the individual only in so far as he serves as a sacrifice to be thrown into the glowing arms of the insatiable Moloch.” Modern nationalism demands “the complete absorption of man in the higher ends of power.”

The fascists of the 1930s attacked liberal individualism for its “social atomism” – a claim that continues to be made by modern critics of libertarianism, socialists and conservatives alike. This argument maintains that political and economic individualism dissolve society into separate, egoistic “atoms” that lack all sense of community and have no lasting ties to others, beyond those that facilitate economic exchanges and other self‐​interested transactions. Nationalism, in this view, fosters social solidarity; it instills in people a sense of belonging and mutual purpose, a sense that there exists a good greater than the mundane lives of selfish individuals.

Rocker repudiates the charge of social atomism, root and branch. He argues that the voluntary associations of individuals, not the coercive power of the state, comprise authentic social relationships. Political power “has destroyed the fine cellular tissue of social relationships.” True, a government can compel people to fulfill certain duties, but it cannot induce them to do so “with love and from inner desire.” Coercion separates men rather than bringing them closer together; it destroys the sympathy and mutual understanding that are essential to social cooperation. “Social ties have permanence and completely fulfill their purpose only when they are based on good will and spring from the needs of men.” The state, by replacing cooperation with coercion, is the true cause of social atomism.

It is the state which on principle undermines man’s social feeling by assuming the part of adjuster in all affairs and trying to reduce them to the same formula, which is for its supporters the measure of all things. The more easily the state disposes of the personal needs of the citizens, the deeper and more ruthless it dips into their individual lives and disregards their private rights, the more successfully stifles in them the feeling of social union, the easier it is for it to dissolve society into its separate parts and incorporate them as lifeless accessories into the gears of the political machine.

Having witnessed the rise of fascism in his native Germany, Rocker perceptively noted the fundamental similarity of fascism and communism.

Today we deal only with secondary differences.…Fascism and communism are…not to be evaluated as the opposition of two different conceptions of the nature of society; they are merely two different forms of the same effort and operate to the same end.

As for why most western intellectuals did not condemn the statist core of both communism and fascism, Rocker believed this was because western democracies had abandoned individual rights and freedoms and were defending their own versions of statism instead, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the specific form of statism made relatively little difference.

Bourgeois democracy has grown senile and has lost all sympathy for the rights it once used to defend. It is this blunting of its morals, this lack of ethical ideals, that cripples its wings and forces it to borrow the methods of the enemy that is threatening to devour it. Centralization of government has broken its spirit and crippled its initiative. That is the reason why many think today that they must choose between fascism and communism. [G]overnmental centralization has assumed a scope which must fill even the least suspicious with secret dread of the future.