by Karl Hess
It is a measure of the breadth of Robert LeFevre’s influence and character that so many will remember him for so many different reasons. Teacher. Schoolmaster. Consultant. Businessman. Philosopher. Soldier. Religionist. Social Theorist. Debater. Author. Socratic Goad. Experimenter. Maddening Demander of Consistency. Searcher. Finder. Good Friend. Implacable Foe. All of that is detailed in this book.
My special reason for remembering him is civility. His. Not mine. Being given to temper and rash actions, I always felt that Bob was a great anchor to windward, reminding me that it is possible, indeed desirable, to keep a steady helm and an even keel even in the stormiest debate of contention.
Bob’s civility was majestic. It made him seem as a great rock around which angry waves could crash, but which they could never submerge or move.
Bob actually acted as though humans, being rational, would recognize thoughts that coincided with material reality, and then act accordingly. That belief, that informed thought will move an individual – an institution – a people – to action is one of the human race’s most enduring optimisms.
But many develop cynicism, seeing such a belief as an illusion. Others, doubting people will change themselves, see it as a rationale for imposing their ideas on others. LeFevre seemed to me to be an alternative. He acted on his beliefs. He certainly encouraged others to do the same, to understand what he understood. But he neither despaired cynically of the project, or roared in frustration for a crusade to teach the heathen. He saw the world in terms of individuals. His appeal was not to society. It was not to history, or humanity, or future generations, or to any such abstraction.
His difference would be with you. His agreement would be with you. He did not want to change the world. Individuals changing were the only way the world would ever change. And he felt that only you could change yourself. He did not, to cut to the core of it, want intermediaries of coercion in that process. Life, in his view, should be a matter of self-controlled, volitional actions between free humans.
Of all the intermediary forces that LeFevre despised and abhorred, violence was foremost. According to him, violence – certainly not money – was the root of all evil. Without violence, for instance, all humans would be free to make up their own minds about their own lives. The alternative to violence was infinitely more exciting: the opportunities for self-owned and self-controlled individuals to make voluntary agreements among themselves.
LeFevre’s main point, which he once summed up in an interview, was that each of us should “Do as you please – but harm no other in his person or property.”
From that position can be extrapolated everything that LeFevre taught and talked about. He tenaciously held that the individual was the key to it all. Not tides of history. Not winds of war. Not storms of ideology. Not pressure of politics. The individual must and does make up his or her own mind whether to be free or controlled. The person who submits to outside control “believes” that some one or some institution has the authority, the right to control the person. But, LeFevre believed that by nature humans are free, unique, and if they will it, absolutely able to control themselves.
Perhaps the most discord and confusion were generated by those who viewed his position as simple pacifism. His position rejected violence even in self-defense. He could see no gain for freedom in using the tool of tyranny – violence. But his wasn’t a position of simple pacifism, not a position simply in opposition to violence. It was a position in favor of the centrality of individualism, with violence seen as something to be resisted, not in the abstract, but in the concrete sense that it violated human self-control.
I have known many who profess what I think of as simple pacifism. They focus on the violence itself. They will not be violent against anyone else. To be violent would be to sin against someone, to commit a wrong against the person to whom the violence is directed. LeFevre’s point was subtle, and different. Although he shared the pacifist’s concern of what violence would do to someone else, LeFevre especially abhorred it because of what it would do to him! He taught that inflicting violence corrupts one’s own character. LeFevre was 100% consistent in a position from which he would absolutely refuse to harm another person. He could obviously hope that the refusal to do harm would be reciprocated, but he also knew that only he could be responsible for his own actions.
He proclaimed his position. He taught it to all who would voluntarily, listen. He would impose it upon no one. And he would live by his position as an individual though the entire universe might be against him.
LeFevre’s whole world view was a wonderfully comprehensive one. This is best seen by his attitude toward politics and government.
He did not believe for an instant in the possibility of good coming from political action, nor did he harbor any illusion about “improving” an institution so dependent upon violence as the State. The institution was beyond redemption, in his view, since – even with angels at the controls – it would still depend upon violence to enforce its actions.
He realized that some people want to be controlled by government. He never suggested that they be denied the fulfillment of that need. He never suggested overthrowing the politics that fed that need. He did advocate withdrawing from it completely. “Let the State exist for those who want it, but let it not harm me or any other who does not want it.”
Just as his refusal to engage in violence was not simple pacifism, his denunciation of the State was not simple anarchism. Anarchism, which is opposition to the institution of the State, is an ideological shelter for many positive forces as well as the single negative one of opposing the State.
It was many of those positive forces that LeFevre opposed with as much vigor as he opposed the State itself. For instance, the attacks by many anarchist against private property were absolutely contrary to LeFevre’s dictum of doing what you will without harming another. Peaceful humans who produce wealth, or other property, or who claim land, would never be dispossessed in a truly free society, one free of the institutionalized violence of the State. The ownership of self implies the ownership of those things associated with the labors of the self. Thus property. To dispossess someone of property, no matter how benign the motive, implies the use of force, violence.
On the other hand, the single negative position of anarchism, opposition to the State, was too narrow for LeFevre. He felt that the positive virtues of individualism were greater than mere opposition to an institution.
LeFevre’s position most closely parallels libertarian or free market anarchism, with its consistent defense of rights of ownership, and of individual self-ownership. Yet, he saw as clearly as anyone a most interesting paradox. Some of these same libertarians participated in political action, even while forswearing the use of force to accomplish political, social, or personal goals. How, he often goaded them, could they both renounce force while participating in a process founded fully upon it?
Education, person-by-person, no matter how tedious and slow, was the only fitting course for the improvement of the human condition – the only course consistent with what LeFevre saw as the nature of humans to be absolute controllers of their own selves. Education of the individual, the freedom education which is at the heart of this book, was the only alternative which justified its ends by its means.
It is a great measure of the civility of Bob LeFevre, that he could gently abide – without approving – the actions and friendship of many who, for simply utilitarian purposes (being nowhere near as composed in principle as Bob was), flirted with politics. As one of those myself, I was always mindful of Bob’s great patience, the truly caring nature of his advice, and, finally, the clear rightness of his principles.
Of all the people I have known, Bob LeFevre, more than anyone else, would want every individual to steer his or her own course, being fully responsible for its every twist and turn. LeFevre left us all a fine example and a magnificent chart. He did not leave us any command to sail. That, he knew, and we all should know, is up to each of us.