Does Freedom Need to Be Organized?
by Carl Watner
From Number 34 - October 1988
In a recent book review* of John Henry Mackay's The Freedom Seeker, Murray
Rothbard noted that the author became more "passive or quietist" in
his strategy over the years. This quietism, Rothbard observed
is, I believe, a blind alley for anarchists or libertarians. If individuals wish
to improve or redeem themselves, they should, so to speak, do so on their own
time, and not bother the rest of us. Trying to achieve social goals, such as
total freedom and private property, by this route is a task for Sisyphus. It
gets nowhere. Attaining a free society, like any other goal, requires organization.
Anarchists must organize themselves to spread the message and to work toward
their goals in the real social world. Contact must be made with the masses of
fellow-citizens, and alliances made on the basis of issues of common agreement
with those who have not achieved the full libertarian position, but are willing
to collaborate on more specific goals. In short, it is incumbent on individual
anarchists to leave their self-imposed sectarian holes and to forge out into
the real world. They should seek to move the world consciously and as rapidly
as possible, toward their cherished goals.
While Rothbard's comments are offered as an aside, voluntaryists must challenge
Rothbard on his continued insistence that we "organize." Even without
clear definitions of "quietism" or "organization," let us
note Rothbard's deprecation of self-education and self-improvement. The Voluntaryist
has consistently maintained that such virtues are the prerequisites to the achievement
of spiritual freedom and physical liberty. Effective and long-lasting improvement
in human affairs must begin with the individual. Reform begins with the individual
because society is never better or worse than the persons who compose it, for
they in fact are it. As Frank Chodorov once put it,
The only 'constructive' idea that I can in all conscience advance, then, is that
the individual put his trust in himself, not in power; that he seek to better
his understanding and lift his values to a higher and still higher levels; that
he assume responsibility for his behavior and not shift his responsibility to
committees, organizations, and, above all, a superpersonal state. Such reforms
as are necessary will come of themselves when, or if, men act as intelligent
and responsible human beings. There cannot be a 'good' society until there are
'good men.' (emphasis added) (ANALYSIS, July 1949.)
Bob LeFevre attributed to Rose Wilder Lane the saying that "freedom is self-control."
By this she meant that each person must learn to control his or her self so as
to not interfere with the physical liberty of others. Freedom for all thus becomes
a by-product or derivative of self-control. As each person assumes true self-government,
there no longer is any need for any attempt at external governing. As LeFevre
wrote in his article on "The Stoic Virtues," "if individual men
can be made right, society, a mere gathering of men, will be right of necessity."
Thus, the voluntaryist way of changing society is to concentrate upon bettering
the character of men and women, as individuals. We refer to this as the,"quiet"
or "patient" way since it focuses on the individual units of our social
structure. As the individual units change, the improvement of the structure will
take care of itself. Or as we have constantly observed, "If one takes care
of the means, the end will take care of itself."
The problem that we face is not really how to get rid of the State, but rather
the longer range one of how to prevent another one from taking its place. That
is why we must encourage individuals to seek self-enlightenment. There can be
no backlash from this approach. It requires patience because the feedback loop,
in ideological endeavors is a long one. We are not pointing toward a specific
goal to be reached, but rather voluntaryism, with its emphasis on means, is simply
pointing toward a direction to be taken. Whatever progress we make is to be measured
by education and character building, not violence or votes. This is the only
way that what tiny progress we may make will be permanent and not have to be
done all over again by those who come later.
Rothbard's insistence on "organizing" should also be criticized on
the grounds that most organizations suffer from an inner contradiction or internal
inconsistency. Generally, "when we create a structure to achieve a public
mission, more time is spent on the structure than on the mission." Although
Sam Steiger, the Arizona politician familiar to some libertarians, made this
observation, others have noted this same tendency. For example, historian Carroll
Quigley in his book, The Evolution of Civilizations, describes the practice of
"every social organization to become a vested-interest institution more
concerned with its efforts to maintain itself or advance its own interests than
to achieve the purpose that society expects it to achieve." (p. 34) As evidence,
he mentions fraternities (originally intended to promote student fellowship,
but often dividing students into competitive cliques), and the institutionalization
of football (originally intended to provide exercise for undergraduates, but
which is now one of the great spectator sports). In each case the organization
begins with a devotion to a purpose and somehow along the way turns away from
that purpose and gradually becomes a collection of special interests. Surely
libertarians are not immune from this tendency!
Rose Wilder Lane, in her correspondence with Jasper Crane in The Lady and the
Tycoon, pointed out that people in organizations "tend to work for the existence
and the expansion of the organization rather than for the organization's 'purposes'."
Non-profit libertarian organizations received some of her harshest criticisms.
First of all she noted the inconsistency of advocating free enterprise while
operating on a not-for profit basis. At least the profit motive offers an organization
a measurable goal. The emphasis is upon achievement (building a certain number
of cars, etc.). According to Mrs. Lane, groups of persons who possess money,
unrelated to the profit and loss picture, may have a certain type of power, but
they also become impotent to achieve their goals. Many of the major changes in
history have been brought about by the "poor and powerless;" people
who act "not for money, not for power, but 'from' a conviction of truth
so strong that it compels them to action." In defense of her thesis she
cited both the Moslem conquest of the then "civilized" world in the
8th and 9th Centuries and the American revolution of the 18th Century. Both,
in her opinion, were brought about by individuals who acted on their beliefs,
rather than by people who formed organizations to spend money for intangible
purposes. Mrs. Lane concluded that "it isn't money that moves the world;
it is faith, conviction, ardor, fanaticism in 'action'."
It is human action that creates human history; and human action comes from individual
belief, purpose, will. None of these can be bought. It is the individual's belief,
purpose, will that's needed. Not an organization, a suitable staff, transportation,
printing presses, expert public relations men, etc., etc., etc. IF the belief
and purpose exist, in time they will succeed. 'An army of principles will march
on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.' If they do not exist, no funds,
organization, staff, etc., etc., etc., will do anything at all - but waste the
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, just as changing society
must begin with each one of us. This is a very slow process, one with which we
must not become impatient. We must be satisfied with concentrating on mastering
our own self-control and with explaining to others why they should govern themselves.
The truths of the world - if they are truly truth - do not, never have, and never
will require an organization to support and promulgate them. Freedom does not
need to be organized.
* "A Review" by Murray N. Rothbard in The Storm, No.
16-17, 1986-1987. Available for $5 from:
The MacKay Society, Box 131, Ansonia Station, New York, New York 10023.