essays

Aug 1, 1978

Toward A Libertarian Theory of Revolution

“Libertarians must do the same kind of basic, radical thinking about political change as they have done about ethical and economic issues.”

If ever there was a time for libertarians to start talking about a coherent strategy it is now, at the dawn of the tax revolt. No issue should be approached more thoughtfully, with an eye toward long-term effects and the accumulation of hard-core libertarian support, than taxation, embracing as it does the very sustenance of government. The tangled network of issues raised by the successful Jarvis-Gann initiative makes it clear that it is no longer wise to speak merely of how to privatize schools, or how to reduce regulation, or how to reduce this or that particular tax. The California tax revolt succeeded in raising nearly all the issues: schools, frustration with government power, state and federal taxes, even the value of government “services” themselves. As a liberal San Francisco-area newspaper wrote, “with the passage of Jarvis-Gann the whole idea that government provides valuable services to the people has been called into question… .” None of t|he major issues of our time can be properly dealt with in isolation. The times call for a libertarian philosophy of revolution—a model for rolling back the state that can give order and purpose to the multiplicity of libertarian efforts under way.

It is not my purpose here (or within my capabilities) to set forth such a philosophy. This article is merely an attempt to set the stage, to broaden our understanding of what a coherent political strategy is, and to establish the cognitive and political importance of a new libertarian theory of revolution.

Successful political radicalism has three essential elements. First, there is a critical analysis of the existing order, a systematic understanding of the causes of current injustice and oppression. Second, there must be a positive vision of an ideal society toward which to aspire. Finally, there must be a coherent theory of how to get from the existing system to the ideal, a model which explains how the machinery needed to attain the ideal can be forged out of the engine of the status quo.

The libertarian critique of statism is firmly in place. And libertarian intellectuals and artists are busily defining, creating, and expanding our ideal of a free society. But the last element, the theory of change, is not only missing, but most libertarians fail even to understand what it is and why it is so important. The effect of this missing link is to constrict severely the possibility of success for the libertarian movement.

Now, it is common for libertarians to refer to themselves as “revolutionaries.” Even Edith Efron, defender of the CIA, FBI, and “America,” cannot escape the term. But alas, it is a term we do not yet deserve to apply to ourselves. While libertarians are undeniably intellectual, philosophical radicals, we are not yet radical activists. Our critique and our vision of utopia may very well “go to the root” of ethical and political issues, but we have not thought out a strategic radicalism—an integrated model of how to bring about the kind of vast social changes we seek. To the communist, organizing the proletariat is part of being a communist. Yet there is nothing in libertarian ideology that even says “go forth and multiply,” much less suggests where and how to do it. Libertarian principles are thought of as goals separate and distinct from any particular method of realizing them. This leads to the profound ambivalence and confusion with which libertarians approach political activism. Harry Browne and those who follow his approach should not be perceived as aberrant cop-outs, but as warning signals that we lack a theory of revolution.

This conspicuous absence also affects those who are dedicated to activism, making strategic issues an unintegrated chain of concretes: how to run successful elections, how to organize college campuses, how to approach a particular issue, and so on. While the specific activities produced by such an approach may be of merit, the absence of an overall philosophy of change makes them little more than shots in the dark.

Worse yet, many libertarians continue to think of change as being primarily a problem of “education.” Presumably, when enough people are “educated” to become libertarians, the state will collapse. To put forth “education” as a “strategy” is a prime example of the kind of strategic superficiality we are dealing with. Consider the vast social and political schism between the existing political economy of the United States, and the free society defined by the LP platform. To propose “education” as a method of getting from here to there is rather like asserting that libertarianism will succeed by succeeding; it is an empty pronouncement that confuses goals and methods. Who can deny that the movement will benefit by making people into intellectual libertarians by “educating” people? But how do we change minds; whom do we educate; by what method do we disseminate ideas; what do we do with those who agree with us; and what do we do with those who are “educated” well enough to know that their best interests lie in the preservation of the established order? These are genuinely strategic issues, which the nonconcept of “education” only obscures. Walter Grinder and John Hagel, two individuals who are doing some pioneering work in the area of a theory of social change have written that “ideas in isolation are impotent; it is only by virtue of their adherents that ideas have any impact on society. For this reason, it becomes essential to focus explicitly and systematically on agencies for social change: the people who will transmit the ideas through the social system.” (Emphasis added.)

A philosophy of social change should be able to signal which conflicts caused by the state have within them the potential of leading to elimination of government power.

But this statement, sophisticated and accurate as it is, talks specifically of ideas. Ideas are only half the story. Marxists distinguish between the “objective” and “subjective” conditions of society. To explain this dichotomy very simply, consider a distinction that libertarians cannot have failed to observe: An activist may proselytize that taxation is theft until blue in the face; on such a basis alone, only a tiny number of people will work against taxes or refuse to pay them. Today, the tax revolt has mushroomed, not solely or even primarily because of antitax rhetoric, but because people quite literally cannot afford to pay their property taxes. This is an “objective,” structural problem created by the state. Of course, the subjective interpretation of the problem—the decision to accept it or to put one’s foot down—is just as important as the tax squeeze in inducing revolt. This is where libertarian “educating” and propagandizing comes into play.

For the moment, then, it is useful to think of social change as roughly following this pattern: The growth and operation of government creates conflicts and oppression (the objective conditions) that libertarians, through organizing and propagandizing (influencing the subjective conditions), mold into a force for freedom. But this is merely an outline of what happens in abstract terms. A new philosophy of revolution must do much more. Based on a careful analysis of the post-World War II welfare-warfare state, it must tell libertarians what objective conditions to be on the lookout for, and how to approach them. A philosophy of social change should be able to signal which conflicts caused by the state have within them the potential of leading to the elimination of government power. Further, we need a philosophy of sufficient cognitive power to be predictive, to make it possible for libertarian activists to know in advance what kind of promising objective conditions may arise before they have exploded into full view. This way, libertarian activists will know where to focus their efforts. Thus, when the objective conditions are ripe, libertarians will be there, ready and able to organize mass discontent by offering to the affected people a comprehensive interpretation of and solution to their plight.

Here, imagination is called for. There may be a way of looking at the present political situation—the long-term trends caused by the growth of state power and the reaction of people to those trends—totally overlooked by traditional political thinking. The Marxist concept of the “industrial proletariat” was, after all, an invention of Karl Marx; the “industrial proletariat” has no concrete existence. But, as a way of thinking about social conditions, the category of the industrial proletariat became a powerful strategic weapon that gave order and purpose to the communist movement. Libertarians need to do that kind of thinking about social conditions. We particularly need to be on the lookout for a set of objective conditions which link economic and personal freedom, so that we can overcome the infernal left/right dichotomy which pits taxpayers against gays, civil libertarians against privatization of services, and so on.

This is the key to the future growth and success of libertarianism. We cannot offer only a critique of the state and the “liberal utopia”; we libertarians must also define a specific causal relationship between the two. This relationship must be able to show how organized individuals, acting on the basis of the objective conditions created by the present order, could bring about a free society. Such a causal relationship must not rely on nebulous and undefined feelings that people will just “change their minds” when exposed to “the truth.” On the contrary, a libertarian theory of revolution must be firmly rooted in the Austrian conception of purposeful human action. That is, the established order must bear within itself the seeds of its own destruction—not in the stupid, mechanical, Marxist sense, of course, but in the sense that organized, enlightened purusit of self-interest, within the context created by statism, can naturally lead to the destruction of the state,provided that libertarians have sufficient influence over the subjective conditions.

This is not as simple as it may sound. It is easy to see how a purely libertarian society would be in everyone’s self-interest. Libertarian activists have no trouble convincing special interest groups, from businessmen to welfare recipients, that in the totally free society of the future their interests will be furthered and their rights protected. But right now, in the context created by this particular government, destatizing measures do not always relate directly to their interests—and it is harder than hell to find ways to make them do so. Likewise, it is not hard to think of ways in which statism can be overturned—but it is much harder to think of ways that will assure the emergence of a libertarian society afterwards. Our philosophy of revolution must trace a straight line between our critique of the state and our ideal of a free society. Any strategy that fails to define a concrete relationship between the two is useless.

We have avilable a recent and telling example of the conceptual and political need for a coherent theory of revolution: the transformation of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that took place in the late sixties.

Late 1967 and early 1968 were troubled times. Black people were rioting in urban ghettos across the nation; opposition and active resistance to the Vietnam War was reaching massive proportions; nationwide, campus demonstrations were occurring at a rate of about 2,000 a year, or six every day; draft resistance was spreading. To SDS, standing in the thick of things, it began to appear that revolutionary change was actually possible, that there existed a political movement of sufficient depth and breadth to profoundly alter American society. Now, it is important to remember that SDS at this time was not made up of the authoritarian, bomb-planting collectivists of the later Weather Underground. Their support was strikingly diverse. In the words of Carl Davidson, national secretary of SDS at the time, “We have within our ranks communists of both varieties, socialists of all sorts, three or four different kinds of anarchists, anarchosyndicalists, syndicalists, social democrats, humanist liberals, a growing number of ex-YAF libertarian laissez-faire capitalists, and, of course, the articulate vanguard of the psychedelic liberation front.” Thus SDS, flush from the burgeoning protest movement, and sheltered from the rather hostile middle and working classes by the insulation of campus, came to adopt a consciously revolutionary posture.

But how were they to make a revolution out of the complicated, unprecedented, social upheaval afflicting America in the late sixties? Where were they to turn for strategic guidance? Up until then SDS had treated the language and tactics of the “Old Left”—the explicitly Marxist-Leninist left of the thirties—with irreverence and even contempt. But the adoption of a revolutionary consciousness changed all that. As Kirkpatrick Sale wrote in his detailed history of SDS, “gradually quotations from Marx, then Lenin, and then the modern European Marxists found their way into SDS and other movement literature.” Over the next year or so, SDS struggled with a fundamental dilemma: Without a specific, tightly defined theory of revolution, the radical movement would fall apart. With the forces of sectarianism, disorganization, cooptation, and state repression threatening the vitality of the movement, there was simply too much momentum at hand and too much at stake to rely on anything less than a comprehensive philosophy of social change. Yet the only such philosophy immediately available was that of Marxism-Leninism. They had either to invent their own theory—a monumental task that none of them seemed capable of—or embrace the authoritarian, archaic, and clearly inapplicable Marxist dogmas. Ultimately, SDS and the New Left opted for the latter, due to the conceptual pull of a ready-made philosophy of social change. Of course, within a couple of years they had alienated the bulk of American society, and cut themselves off from the campuses, their major base of support (students aren’t “workers,” after all). The organization itself was transformed from a loosely structured “participatory democracy” with a great deal of local autonomy, into a tightly structured lockstep, subordinating the individual to the wishes of the “collective”—i.e., the leadership. The spewing of Marxist jargon took the place of authentic attempts to relate to political reality and communicate with people. The movement came to identify with the dictatorships of China, Cuba, and North Vietnam, and took to bombing and “trashing” as legitimate forms of political expression. The point here is not that Marxism leads to authoritarianism; we already know that. The point is that those seeking a strategy for revolutionary change had nowhere else to go but toward Marxism.

What happened to SDS thus transmits a valuable lesson about the nature and appeal of Marxism. The pull of communism among intellectuals, students, and Third World nations is not to be explained by the popularity of the political structure of communist nations; nearly everyone recognizes existing communist governments as oppressive, totalitarian monstrosities. Likewise, Marxist economic theory has no real appeal. It is simply untrue and indefensible. Marx’s economic theories were obsolete literally before the ink was dry on the later volumes of Das Kapital, and Lenin’s helpless dithering with the Russian economy after he gained power only provided empirical verification of Marxism’s economic vacuity. The students of SDS and of today are simply not attracted by these aspects of communism.

The older classical liberals and libertarians, fully aware of the utter bankruptcy of Marxist economic theory and the political totalitarianism it engendered, could never seem to understand where the appeal of Marxism lay. Bewildered by it all, they sometimes reverted to rather bitter and unduly pessimistic assessments of man’s nature. Von Mises’s The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality asserts that capitalism has fallen into disrepute because the majority of people, not being highly successful, are too venal to accept the verdict the marketplace has passed on their personal worth. They blame capitalism instead of themselves. (What a depressing theory! If people are really like that, what hope is there for a free society?)

Libertarians must do the same kind of basic, radical thinking about political change as they have done about ethical and economic issues as a prerequisite for victory.

What the classical liberals and contemporary libertarians seem to have missed is that the life-blood of Marxism, the source of its appeal and the core of its existence, is its sweeping and integrated philosophy of revolution. Marxism springs from a deterministic metaphysics of revolutionary change and upheaval. Its analysis of “capitalism” is little more than a description of the political conditions to bring about change. And with strategic genius, communists have adapted their philosophy to every significant social movement of the century: racism, anti-imperialism, the women’s movement, not to mention labor struggles. Today, with more nerve than justice, Marxists are applying the same logic to the struggle over gay rights, despite the fact that not a single communist country on earth affords homosexuals the level of sexual freedom granted by the still-backward United States.

In sum, wherever and whenever there have been masses of people desirous of change—oppressed people, idealists, intellectuals—they have been drawn to Marxism as if by an invisible hand. I do not think that this can be explained fully by assuming that the people involved were statist, authoritarian, or collectivist. The drift to Marxism can be better explained by noting that, in the words of Carl Oglesby of SDS, “there was—and is—no other coherent, integrative, and explicit philosophy of revolution.” It is a classic example of the power of an idea. Indeed, it is difficult to even think about radical political change witht using the language and categories of Marxism. “Ruling class”; “reactionary”; “cadre”; “repression”; “working class”; and “imperialism” all are terms straight out of the lexicon of communism, or else terms that have had their meanings permanently affected by the accretion of Marxist overtones.

My purpose is not to suggest that somehow we adopt Marxist revolutionary theory, but simply to demonstrate the cognitive and political force of a coherent philosophy of revolution. We can inherit that kind of influence if we construct a new, distinctly libertarian theory of revolution, one that projects the path between a statist and libertarian society. Libertarians must do the same kind of basic, radical thinking about political change as they have done about economic and ethical issues. Aside from being a prerequisite for the total victory of liberty, a new philosophy of change would deflate the appeal of Marxism. Marxism, it should be obvious by now, cannot be defeated militarily, cannot be suppressed internally, and won’t just go away. But it can be superseded. That is, the valid and objective need for revolution in the world can be taken over and redefined by a new ideology of change—an ideology, moreover, that does not seek to replace one form of dictatorship with another, but seeks a total and permanent end to political power. If we succeed in defining this new philosophy of revolution, Marxism will wither away long before the state does.

Milton Mueller is executive director of Students for a Libertarian Society.