I am puzzled and disturbed by the reactions of some libertarians to the work of Howard Zinn, on which a lot of attention is obviously being focused just now because of his death last week.
Zinn was an anarchist. He opposed war and imperial violence. He rejected corporate privilege. He highlighted the absurdity and injustice of telling the story of a society from the vantage point of the people atop its pyramid of power.
Libertarians should have no time for the view that history ought to be narrated from the perspective of kings and presidents and generals and their aristocratic and corporate compatriots. One need not agree with every aspect of Zinn’s reading of history to agree that those who employ “the political means” of acquiring wealth, those Comte and Dunoyer and Rothbard and Long and Konkin would all, in their different ways, have identified as the members of the power elite, are not history’s heroes, and that glorifying the American state with triumphalistic tales of its emergence and prowess is no task for lovers of freedom.
Zinn was not infallible. He seems to have exhibited some of the same naïveté about some political regimes as the great libertarian hero, Karl Hess (who was, for instance, surprisingly sanguine about Mao’s China in the mid-’70s). Despite being an anarchist, he seems to have affirmed the New Deal, which represented a dramatic increase in statism and corporatism.
But, whatever his errors, he was right about what mattered most: the destructiveness of war, the injustice of colonialism and conquest.
The threat of violence backs up all of the state’s commands. But the organized, large-scale violence of war and conquest is the worst thing the state does, the thing that makes the state far too dangerous to be tolerated.
Anyone who opposes aggression, anyone who claims to sign on to the Non-Aggression Principle, must see opposition to war and violent conquest as absolutely central to her or his political commitments. That point was thoroughly clear to Murray Rothbard, whose opposition to militarism never wavered even as his political alliances changed: to be a libertarian, to be an anarchist, was about this if it was about anything.
So I don’t know what to make of libertarians who, disagreeing with Zinn about economic theory or objecting to what they take to be his views of some illiberal regimes, ignore his commitment to the most important, the most central principle of all.