Zinn and the Libertarians

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.


Gary, I tend to agree. See e.g. Rockwell's post ‘Untold Truths About the American Revolution’, stating "one of my favorite left-wing historians, is always interesting, and sometimes right."

And see my post The Declaration and Conscription, favorably quoting Zinn, and my post Re ‘Untold Truths About the American Revolution’.

This is one reason that some of the attacks from the left on some of us--calling us "paleos" (or attributing false positions to these "paleos")--is unfair and false.
Gary Chartier said…
Thanks, Stephan.

Here's Zinn on America's “holy wars” (the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II):


This is the kind of piece that clearly differentiates Zinn from the folks who mouth conventional liberal pieties. At a little before 33:00, he begins to talk about the Union's goals during the Civil War. He says bluntly that Lincoln's "purpose in fighting the war was to keep Southern territory within the grasp of the central government. You could almost say it was an imperial aim. . . . It’s put in a nice way: 'we fought for the Union'. We don’t want anybody to secede. . . . Why not? What if they want to secede. We’re not going to let them secede. We want all that territory."
I'm reading his book now and loving it. He's not perfect but he is a breath of fresh air. As for his views on the Civil War, don't tell the pro-civil war PC types on "our side"--they might speak ill of the dead, call him a "doughboy" and other such tough, macho, pro-war talk. (I have two odious characters in mind but but in the spirit of the Rizzonian Truce will say no more.)
Anonymous said…
I am unclear from the context whether you mean Karl Hess was bloody-minded or optimistic about Mao's regime in the 1970s.

Optimism about Mao from a liberty enthusiast seems bizarre. WTF?
omar said…
You guys might like this quote from "Original Zinn" by Howard Zinn and David Barsamian. It's a set of interviews between 2002 and 2006.

You're sometimes described as an anarchist or a democratic socialist. Are you comfortable with those terms? What do they mean to you?

How comfortable I am with those terms depends on who's using them. I'm not uncomfortable when you use them. But if somebody is using them whom I suspect does not really know what those terms mean, then I feel uncomfortable because, after all, the term anarchist to so many people means somebody who throws bombs, somebody who commits terrorist acts, somebody who believes in violence. Oddly enough, the term anarchist does not apply to governments, which use bombs on an enormous scale. The term anarchist has always applied to individuals who have used violence. So the term anarchism very often means that to people. Since I do not believe in throwing bombs, in terrorism or violence, I don't want that definition of anarchism to apply to me.

Anarchism is also misrepresented as being a society in which there is no organization, there is no responsibility, that there is a kind of chaos, again not realizing the irony of a world that is very chaotic, a society that is very chaotic, but to which the word anarchism is not applied.

I've only really, since the 1960s, begun to learn something about anarchism, in reading the autobiography of Emma Goldman, reading Alexander Berkman, Peter Kropotkin, and Michael Bakunin. Anarchism means to me a society in which you have a democratic organization of society, of decision making, of the economy; in which the authority of the capitalist is no longer there -- the authority of the police and the courts and all the instruments of control that we have in a modern society do not operate to control the actions of people. The people would have a say in their own destinies, in which they're not forced to choose between two political parties, neither of which represents their interests. So I see anarchism as meaning both political and economic democracy in the best sense of the term.

I see socialism, which is another term that I would accept comfortably, as meaning not the police state of the Soviet Union. After all, the word socialism has been commandeered by too many people, who, in my opinion, are not socialists bot totalitarians. To me, socialism means a society that is egalitarian and in which the economy is geared to human needs instead of to business profits.
Gary Chartier said…
Anonymous, here's the Hess quote I had in mind (it's from Dear America, a book of which I'm very fond, on p. 12): "The farthese left you can go,historically at any rate, is anarchism--the total opposition of any institutionalized power, a state of completely voluntary social organization in which people would establish their ways of life in small, consenting groups, and cooperate with others as they see fit. The attitude on that farthese left toward law and order was summed up by . . . Proudhon, who said that 'order is the daughter of and not the mother of liberty.' . . . A bit further along the left line there might be some agreement or at least sympathy with this left libertariniasm but, it would be said, there are practical and immediate reasons for putting off that sort of liberty. People just aren't quite ready for it. Roughly, that's the position of the Communist Party today--except in China, where there still seems to be insistence that people are ready for it, no matter how many bureaucratic ambitions have to suffer in the process. But even there it is obvious that some Chinese do constitute themselves as a ruling class, and so there is the rather divided picture of acountry which seems to be working on being very far to the left out in the countryside while still being much more to the right in the seats of power." I submit that, in 1975, life in the Chinese countryside was not marked by a dedication to total freedom as Hess suggests.

Hess is a favorite thinker of mine, but it seems to me that he simply romanticized rural China here.
Unknown said…
Zinn was not an anarchist, but his opposition to imperialism is nonetheless admirable.
Gary Chartier said…
Omar, thanks for the Zinn quote.

It seems to me unclear just what Zinn really envisions anarchy and socialism as involving. (When he equates "the authority of the capitalist" with "the authority of the police and the courts and all the instruments of control that we have in a modern society," he provides some support for my contention that many people use "capitalism" to refer to dominance of society, not just the workplace, by "capitalists.") I'm not clear, when he talks about anarchy as radical democracy, whether he's thinking in terms of democratically structured micro-states, so that his position wouldn't, in this regard, really involve the absence of the state, or whether democracy is just a metaphor for self-rule. Certainly his explicit anti-majoritarianism is hard to square with democratic statism.

Similarly, would Hodgskin or Tucker have been uncomfortable with his definition of "socialism"? I'm not sure. Certainly neither wanted to denigrate profit, so they wouldn't have framed things just as he did, though perhaps they would have said that, in a raidcally freed market, while profit would still be pursued, no individual or firm would succeed in pursuing profit while riding rough-shod over workers or communities, so the characteristic accompaniments of the pursuit of profit in contemporary society would be absent. And of course they'd say that this was a way of meeting human needs, rather than an alternative to it. (Presumably Zinn is able to contrast the two because he has in mind a society in which privilege enables people to pursue profits and become wealthy without meeting human needs, as would not, ex hypothesi, be possible in a genuinely freed market.) Clearly, they would have characterized the society they envisioned as egalitarian, not just in the sense that people would have equal legal and moral status, but also in that, without statist privilege, the wealth gap would diminish significantly and social influence would be more equal than at present--even though equality of condition wouldn't be secured using aggressive violence.
Jesse said…
Hess' views on China were influenced by Stephen Halbrook, who these days is known as a gun rights guy but in that era was prone to writing essays claiming Lenin and Mao for the libertarian tradition. When Halbrook wrote his second pro-Mao article -- titled "Mao, Economy, and State"! -- Hess penned an introduction that ran alongside it. He didn't endorse everything Halbrook said, but he wrote that libertarians should be open-minded about the possibility that some of the experiments going on in China were admirable. (As far as I'm aware, the only other prominent libertarian who reacted positively Halbrook's arguments was Leonard Liggio, who basically endorsed them outright -- see, for example, his review of Daniel Guerin's *Anarchism* in *The Liberated Guardian*.)

As absurd as all this is, a lot of people -- not just a few left-libertarians -- had the impression in the early '70s that Maoism was more like anarcho-communism than Stalinism. At any rate, when Edith Efron wrote in *Reason* that Hess was a Maoist, Hess wrote a letter to the editor that strongly disputed the charge.

Besides Halbrook, I expect that Hess was also influenced by Rothbard's early statements about China during the Left and Right years. Here's Rothbard, from the original version of "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty"; Rothbard has been arguing that libertarianism is the most consistent form of radical Leftism, so when he writes "more left-wing," it's also supposed to mean "more libertarian":

In fact, Lenin, almost without knowing it, accomplished more than this. It is common knowledge that "purifying" movements, eager to return to a classic purity shorn of recent corruptions, generally purify further than what had held true among the original classic sources. ... Lenin's camp turned more "left" than had Marx and Engels themselves. Lenin had a decidedly more revolutionary stance toward the State, and consistently defended and supported movements of national liberation against imperialism. The Leninist shift was more "leftist" in other important senses as well. For while Marx had centered his attack on market capitalism per se, the major focus of Lenin's concerns was on what he conceives to be the highest stages of capitalism: imperialism and monopoly. Hence Lenin's focus, centering as it did in practice on State monopoly and imperialism rather than on laissez-faire capitalism, was in that way far more congenial to the libertarian than that of Karl Marx. In recent years, the splits in the Leninist world have brought to the fore a still more left-wing tendency: that of the Chinese. In their almost exclusive stress on revolution in the undeveloped countries, the Chinese have, in addition to scorning Right-wing Marxist compromises with the State, unerringly centered their hostility on feudal and quasi-feudal landholdings, on monopoly concessions which have enmeshed capital with quasi-feudal land, and on Western imperialism. In this virtual abandonment of the classical Marxist emphasis on the working class, the Maoists have concentrated Leninist efforts more closely on the overthrow of the major bulwarks of the Old Order in the modern world.

Which, written in 1965 on the eve of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is probably kind of embarrassing in retrospect. (Curiously, the part of this passage about Mao's China, from "In recent years..." to the end of the paragraph, has disappeared in the version of the essay reprinted at LewRockwell.com. The Mises.com version is apparently based on the version from Left and Right I.1, and the LewRockwell.com version from the reprint in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature; if anyone has a copy of the book lying around, maybe you can tell me whether the omission started with that reprint, or whether it started online.)

Anyway, as you note, this kind of thing was weirdly common; and unfortunately, Maosketeering was becoming increasingly popular in the New Left just as Hess was really digging most into it. You ended up with a lot of weird things, as with pacifist feminist Barbara Deming bizarrely writing in praise of Mao's Laogai reeducation camps in the middle of what is otherwise a wonderful essay on prison abolitionism.
Gary, sadly, you are right--witness this horrible post by Tim Sandefur, One of America’s greatest liars is dead, concluding "Good riddance to the worst of garbage. The world is a better place without Howard Zinn."

This is from someone who maligns anyone who thinks Lincoln's war was immoral, illegal, and unconstitutional as being a doughboy, neoconfederate, slavery apologist... The regime "libertarians" are a despicable bunch.
Jesse said…
I think (though I've never been entirely sure) that Rothbard there was referring to the Leninist/Maoist views of revolution and not to their practices once in power. Rothbard liked that they were targetting feudal and colonial regimes, as opposed to industrial societies whose economies were closer to the Rothbardian ideal of markets and property rights. Halbrook tried to go beyond that, and to claim that Leninism and Maoism in power were libertarian.

(Rothbard's reaction to Halbrook's pro-Mao writing was interesting: He agreed that Maoist China was basically anarcho-communist, but he saw that not as a reason to like Mao but as a springboard for attacking anarcho-communism.)
Jesse: I think (though I've never been entirely sure) that Rothbard there was referring to the Leninist/Maoist views of revolution and not to their practices once in power. Rothbard liked that they were targetting feudal and colonial regimes, as opposed to industrial societies whose economies were closer to the Rothbardian ideal of markets and property rights.

That's probably part of what he had in mind, yes. (The New Left fascination with Maoism was also somewhat, although not entirely, driven by enthusiasm for his revolutionary theory; especially his writing on People's War and bottom-up revolution. Feminist groups used the practice of "speaking bitterness" as a model for consciousness-raising; third worldist Leftists took a lot of direction from both the Chinese government's and the Cuban government's support for worldwide guerrilla uprisings against empire; etc.)

But on the other hand, it does seem odd that Rothbard would foreground the Sino-Soviet split if his concern were just with Maoist theories of revolution, and not with supposed practical differences in how the USSR and the PRC regimes were operating ca. 1965 (e.g. that the USSR regime had settled into a comfortable statehood as an imperial superpower, while the PRC regime was still somehow furthering "revolutionary" "left-wing" aims while in power). It also seems odd that he would specifically mention their "scorning Right-wing Marxist compromises with the State," which again sounds as much like the 1965 attitude towards domestic revisionism and the bizarre 1960s experiments with mock-decentralism-from-above as anything. In any case, given that this big push in revolutionary theory by official Maoism at the time was so closely and explicitly connected not just with ongoing guerrilla uprisings in the third world, but also with internal Chinese state projects, which were supposedly aimed at reviving the old spirit of the revolution within China and at thoroughly smashing the rotting counterrevolutionary revisionist line, etc. etc., I'm not sure how cleanly the line between 1960s Maoist revolutionary theory and 1960s Maoist practices in power can really be drawn.

When was Halbrook's stuff on Maoism mainly being put out? It may be that Rothbard had simply changed his mind by that point, or had sharpened a distinction which he hadn't yet been ready to clearly draw in '65.
Jesse said…
When was Halbrook's stuff on Maoism mainly being put out?

Circa 1970-72.
TGGP said…
I criticized Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek for making assumptions about Zinn here.
Joel Schlosberg said…
"if anyone has a copy of the book lying around, maybe you can tell me whether the omission started with that reprint, or whether it started online"

I decided to do a little digging around, and here's what I found.

The second edition, from 2000, of Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature is online at Mises.org and Google Books, and indeed it omits the passage; I don't see any online version of the 1974 first edition, so I don't know about that one. Using Google Books, I was able to see that of the print versions of the essay, The Libertarian Alternative (1974) and Left and Right: Selected Essays, 1954-1965 (1972) both include the passage, whereas a standalone publication of the essay by the Cato Institute in 1979 does not. Of the various online versions of the essay, the scan of the original publication in Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought on Mises.org does indeed include the passage, and does another online version on Mises.org from 2002 taken from the journal publication; whereas the online version at murrayrothbard.com (which has no indication of where it was take from) does not.

So it seems that there are two different versions of the essay floating around (I didn't have the chance to check if there are other differences between the two versions), and the edited version dates back to at least 1979.
Brian Moore said…
Zinn is like a lot of other people: good on criticizing imperialism (with a few factual liberties taken, which it's also fine to criticize him for) but bad on economic ideas.

So it's fine to commend him for the former and criticize him for the latter.

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