From Far Right to Far Left — and Farther — With Karl Hess Reply

By John Boyd

This text was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 1970. Many thanks to E. for sending me this text. — François-René Rideau


James Boyd, a freelance writer, is executive director of the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C.

On a June afternoon in 1960 Karl Hess 3rd, an assistant to the president of Ohio’s vast Champion Paper and Fibre Company, was driving toward Cincinnati, lost in the manipulative thoughts common to rising young executives. Suddenly the sound of a police siren intruded and he pulled over, perplexed but not alarmed, for in his world the police menaced not.

“Mr. Hess?” The trooper spoke deferentially. “The White House is trying to reach you, sir. Please call this number.”

He called. Would he write the platform for the upcoming Republican National Convention at Chicago, the platform Richard Nixon would run on for President? He would; shortly thereafter he moved into an office in the White House.

At 37, clean-cut, huskily handsome, mellow-voiced, he was the kind of fellow that big business loans out to politicians to advise them what to do and say, a fellow who conducted seminars for Congressmen, authored Republican white papers on military and diplomatic strategy, would one day help ghost a book on defense policy for Representative Mel Laird. He was good at it, was in demand. In 1964 he did his stint again, co-authoring the Republican platform and staying on as Barry Goldwater’s speech man in the Presidential run. Better than anyone else, Karl Hess could tell you what conservative Republicanism stood for.

Nowadays when the sirens sound, Hess scrams for the nearest exit. From Goldwaterism, which sought to abolish half of government, he has progressed to anarchism, which would abolish all. Night after night he socks it home to receptive audiences that the old conservatives were wiser than they knew: that growing militarism and welfarism have brought the garrison state and stagnation to America, just as they had prophesied; that the Old Right must join forces with the New Left in a libertarian revolution to restore neighborhood government by boycotting all other kinds. The Hess platform for 1970 is a blueprint for resistance to authority: don’t pay taxes; don’t submit to the draft; don’t move out when the government condemns your neighborhood in the name of eminent domain; pay no attention to permits, licenses or craft certificates; hide political prisoners; support all who resist — whether it be Vivien Kellems, Rhody McCoy or the Panthers.

“The revolution occurs,” Hess says, “when the victims cease to cooperate.”

Well, maybe. Hess represents no more than a talking aberration, one man making a fool of himself, someone to be swept out with the garbage, as Mr. Agnew would say. But suppose there is an entire breed of rebel out there, spawned not by permissive indolence, but rugged individualism; asking not to be coddled, but to be left entirely on their own; inspired not by alien subversives, but by quintessential Americans like Taft, Garrison, Calhoun, Jefferson, and the signers of the Old Declaration that said government should be minimal and should be abolished whenever it oversteps itself.

A lot of people still believe in John Hancock: the millions who cheer George Wallace’s threats of mayhem against the pointy-headed bureaucrats; the thousands of pioneer types who migrate from here to Western Canada each year to get away from governmental interference in their lives; the recalcitrants among us who keep defeating tax and bond referendums; the otherwise solid citizens of Warren, Mich., enraged by the latest urban renewal blueprint, who recently mobbed Housing Secretary George Romney’s car; the ubiquitous wildcatters and injunction defiers who are in other respects patriotic Americans; the enthusiasts for local self-government and neighborhood control who spring up here and there to resist Washington and the statehouses; the graying ex-aides of Senator Taft who write anarchist articles for the Libertarian Forum; and the substantial minority at last year’s national convention of the Young Americans for Freedom that designated itself as libertarian and voted for active resistance to the draft laws. It may suffice to note the dichotomy among the thousands of young conservatives who so conspicuously campaigned for Jim Buckley last month: “The bulk of the youths are ‘traditionalists’ who emphasize stability and a somewhat aggressive foreign policy,” journalist Stephen Wiesman describes, “but the others are ‘libertarians’ who believe so vehemently in personal freedoms that they find more in common with the radical left than with liberals.”

“This is not the year of the radical-liberal at all,” writes John A. Hamilton of The New York Times. “It is the year of the radical reactionary.” If this is so, then we ought to know more about Karl Hess so that, depending on our disposition, we can (1) requisition additional garbage cans; (2) start counterblackguarding Republicans as breeders of subversives; or (3) begin to inquire into whether something vital in our past is being violated by our present, remembering that civilizations begin to die when they betray their origins.

Behind his post-Republican beard, Hess is a smiling, soft-voiced sympathetic-eyed man, broad-shouldered in the sturdy blue shirt of a laborer. He exudes that ethereal, inexplicable cheerfulness of a nun scrubbing floors, a gentility that is unsettling; we expect our anarchists to be glittery-eyed bomb-throwers because we get our ideas about them from politicians, whose attitudes sour upon discovering there would be no place for politicians in Utopia.

“Politics has always been the institutionalized way for some men to live off the output of other men,” Hess says. “Politics devour men; a laissez-faire world will liberate them.”

Why did he defect from the palace to the barricades?

“The immediate cause was Vietnam,” he says. “Conservatives like me had spent our lives arguing against Federal power — with one exception. We trusted Washington with enormous powers to fight global Communism. We were wrong — as Taft foresaw when he opposed NATO. We forgot our old axiom that power always corrupts the possessor. Now we have killed a million and a half helpless peasants in Vietnam, just as Stalin exterminated the kulaks, for reasons of state interest, erroneous reasons so expendable that the Government never mentioned them now and won’t defend them. Vietnam should remind all conservatives that whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up as an apologist for mass murder.”

If Vietnam persuaded Hess that government is evil, the new technology convinced him it is an unnecessary evil. “Power institutions developed because of scarcity. Historically, there was never enough of the necessities to go around, so people submitted to kings and armies, either to steal from others or to defend what little they had. But new developments in ways of growing and making things mean there is no longer any logical reason for scarcity, and so there is no longer any justification for the nation-state that outweighs its obvious threat to human survival.”

Hess feels that the logic of decentralization and the impulse of people to take things onto their own hands is visible everywhere and will crumple Stalinist states at about the same rate it does capitalist ones.

“They are in the same boat and they know it; remember, it was the Communist party of France that bailed out the Gaullists from the student-worker revolution. You’ll see that alliance more and more, because Stalinism is only the perfected model of state capitalism. Anarchism is the common enemy of both.”

Whatever the immediate causes and perceptions that influenced Karl Hess to insurrection, much of his life seems to have been a preparation for it. His mother preceded him in realizing a version of the American dream, finding it unworthy, and rejecting it. She was a working girl in Washington, D.C. when she won the hand of a dashing millionaire, who carried her off to a great estate in the Philippines, where his businesses were and where little Karl was born in 1923. But Thelma Hess in time decided that her husband was an incurable philanderer. She left him and returned home with her son. As a matter of personal principle, she insisted on making her own way as a switchboard operator and sought no alimony. Thus, even as an infant, Karl was an unwitting partner in a revolt against a major American institution.

“We remained virtuous but poor,” he says. One perceives a trace of wistfulness, as though once in a while Karl wonders furtively what life is like back at the ancestral hacienda.

And there was the matter of his education. Long before he was of school age, Karl’s mother taught him to read. “She had a rule. Before I got a toy, I must read a book. Before I got to kindergarten, I had read H. G. Wells’ ‘Outline of History.'”

To this precocious boy, school was a prison; the contrast between his joy in discovery outside and the bored, regimented hours within may have planted in him the seed of contempt for all institutions, and for society’s assumption that it knows best. In the first year of high school, he quit and became a permanent truant. He believes his own experience is shared by millions, whether advanced, average or backward.

“At age 5 or 6, a child is introduced to the stupidities of state compulsion. School on these terms is a challenge not to learn anything, and most kids rise to the challenge.”

His tactic in quitting school foreshadowed the nonviolent resistance he now advocates as the citizen’s proper stance toward the demands of government. Instead of just not showing up, he enrolled in two high schools; then at each school he filed transfer papers to the other. “They never caught on. A bureaucracy is always inefficient; the bigger it gets the more vulnerable it is to clerical sabotage. Instead of learning how to make bombs, revolutionaries should master computer programming.”

But at 14 revolution was far from Karl’s thoughts. It was enough then to be free at last to enter productive life. Under the law, he was too young to work; he lied and landed a job with the Mutual radio network as assistant to newscaster Walter Compton. In a few weeks, he progressed from legwork and research to interviews and writing news shows — heady days for a juvenile. The new freedom, however was a tenuous thing, existing only so long as the authorities didn’t notice him. One day he borrowed Compton’s car to drive to an interview. En route he got a traffic ticket. From the subsequent proceedings, Mutual learned Karl’s age and fired him to comply with the law. Hess feels that the freedom of most Americans is just as revocable.

“We have the illusion of freedom only because so few ever try to exercise it. Try it sometime. Try to save your home from the highway crowd, or to work a trade without the approval of the goons, or to open a little business without a permit, or to grow a crop without a quota, or to educate your child the way you want to, or to not have a child. We all have the freedom of a balloon floating in a pin factory.”

At 16, Hess began anew as copyboy to the manager of The Alexandria Gazette in Virginia, a post he remembers fondly. “We were always shorthanded, so I got a chance to do everything you can do at a newspaper — setting type, taking photos, hustling ads, writing editorials. In two years I knew the business inside out.”

He began now to take an interest in politics. He was never tempted by the Democrats. They smacked to him of the paternalism that had chained him to school, of the do-goodism that was forever tripping him up, of the elitism wherein the intelligent few presumed to solve the problems of the stupid many. For a time, he went to Socialist meetings. “They were not elitists, but they were even more doctrinaire and bureaucratically inclined than the Democrats. I liked them, though, and learned a lot from their interminable discussions. For one thing, I learned to hate Stalinism as the ultimate perversion of everything decent.”

By process of elimination, he became a Republican. “In 1940 the Republican party presented itself as the party that was against centralized power, against militarism and foreign meddling, against Communism; it was for local control, individual liberty and the pioneer spirit. That was my ticket.”

Came Pearl Harbor and Hess volunteered. He could have stayed out, for during his infancy in the Philippines he had contracted malaria and other tropical diseases. But he wanted to do his part, for his doubt about the system then was only the entrepreneur’s impatience with restraint, the feeling that America wasn’t quite American enough. He concealed his medical history, enlisted in the Armed Forces and went to Fort Knox, Ky. During training there, he was felled by asthma and bronchial pneumonia; his medical history surfaced. He was honorably discharged and returned home where he got a job as a rewrite man for The Washington Times-Herald. He was now 18.

If in later life Hess was to rebel on principle, in those years he did so out of impishness. “Several of us at the Times-Herald rotated as the night-club columnist,” he recalls. “It was such a drag that we used to make up our columns out of thin air. One day I did an imaginary account that placed our city editor in the most disreputable flophouse in town. Everybody at the paper roared, except him. ‘Never do it again,’ he warned. So, naturally in my next column I put him back in that joint, and I got fired.”

Hess crossed over to The Washington Daily News. Ability propelled him to the post of assistant editor before he was 20; but again that gargoyle of the spirit undid it all.

“One day the editor called me up at some ungodly hour to say that Roosevelt was dead and for me to rush in and do the obituary piece. I said Roosevelt’s obit wasn’t worth getting up for. He canned me.”

He was at an age when losing a good job was trivial; he was learning to fly. Literally. Aviation became his big enthusiasm and led him to the news editorship of Aviation Week. Flying planes, writing about them and getting paid for it; could life possibly offer more? In fact it could. There was Yvonne, marriage, and two adored sons.

But politics was eating away at him with that special faculty it has for poisoning the good life. It was now the postwar era, when the United States was defining the role it would play in the world. Two principles Hess now regards as contradictory had coalesced within him: the pool hustler’s instinctive love for the unrestricted free market, and the cold warrior’s acquired credo that America must mobilize itself and the world to roll back the advance of Communism. For the next two decades he would live the odyssey of the conservative intellectual, alternating with the seasons between journalism and party politics.

Writing an anti-Communist column for Pathfinder, a conservative weekly with a million readers, led to a post with the Republican National Committee where he set up its first news service. Then he edited Counter Attack, a cold war newsletter, and freelanced for American Mercury until it became grossly anti-Semitic. “I should have quit earlier than I did, but there is so much anti-Semitism on the right that I had grown insensitive to it.”

For a while he worked for H. L. Hunt, doing the graphic design of Facts Forum and editing the first few issues. But the association with Hunt didn’t last long. “You can’t reasonably discuss anything with a man who makes a million dollars a week; what possible basis does he have for listening to you?”

From 1950 to 1955 Hess was press editor at Newsweek. Then he became one of the founding fathers at National Review. “Anti-Communism is an exciting ideology which for many meant status, a sense of ‘doing something,’ in an otherwise fairly drab environment. The difference between being just a reporter and being an anti-Communist crusading reporter — with regular assists from the ‘secret’ files of the F.B.I. — is considerable in terms of vanity alone, if not money.”

There were times when his interests in life-at-large almost detoured him from polemics and from whatever fate now awaits him. He wrote a children’s book, the “Nature and Science” volume of the University Society Bookshelf for Children. And he indulged his love of fishing by taking the editorship of Fisherman Magazine at Oxford, Ohio. “My object was to make it a gentlemanly, almost English, sporting magazine. For two years all went well, but it got too expensive and folded.”

Then — the world of business at Champion, where he would set up corporate defenses against socialist (as opposed to responsible) unionism, and would win a corporate award for establishing one of the first industrial programs for ideological indoctrination. By the contemporary standard, those were salad years for Karl Hess. He shuttled back and forth from executive boardrooms to political backrooms in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

“I became a standard Midwestern conservative, self-satisfied, well-paid; I had 17 custom suits, a plush suburban home, the works. And so did all the people I knew. We were part of the managerial class, used to having our way. You develop a mystique to justify this; ours was that what was good for management was good for everyone. We really believed that we were the salvation of America and that laboring people ought to bow down and thank God for us every day before breakfast.”

In 1962, Hess left Champion to return to Washington as director of special projects at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a blue-ribbon think tank considered to be the most effective defender of corporate capitalism. There the shuttling was easier and Hess worked with such present Administration luminaries as Paul McCracken, G Warren Nutter, Milton Friedman and William Baroody Jr.

With the 1964 Presidential campaign approaching, Hess left the plush certitude of A.E.I. for another run on the political roller coaster. This time he was in the number two salaried post at the Republican National Committee, a front seat for the exhilarating rise with Barry Goldwater to nomination and the headlong plunge to shattering defeat at the polls.

Some of us should not be allowed too close a look at our electoral process. For most, such exposure destroys only innocence, but for Hess it destroyed faith. It was not the defeat, he insists, or the temporary exile from party favor suffered by those associated with that defeat. Such bruises hurt, but conservatives were accustomed to losing elections and Hess was used to re-establishing himself afterwards. Certainly it was not disillusion with Barry Goldwater, whom Hess continued to serve and still regards as the most admirable of politicians, because he is the least political. What lingered on was the dawning conclusion that our politics is based on lies. All of us suspect this at one time or another, but with Hess the impact was deeper and began to spread, like an infection or a revelation, questioning all of his past allegiances.

His big business, “free enterprise,” group had given its money to Johnson instead of Goldwater; in the crunch, the corporations wanted not the laissez-faire of their slogans, but government subsidies and contracts and tariffs and preferential regulations. Established power centers of the Republican party, preferring the status quo of the Democrats, had defected from a Republican standard-bearer who stood for traditional conservative doctrine. The campaign dialogue that Hess had counted upon to equalize the disproportion in money, patronage and organization had been so distorted and caricatured as to make millions believe that Goldwater wanted to abolish their Social Security and start a nuclear war. And the pro-“war in Vietnam” party had posed as the peace ticket and had gotten away with it. To Hess, such perfidies robbed the electoral process of all meaning. Where was the free choice between alternatives that was supposed to legitimize the awesome power of government?

Advancing apostasy now suggested contradictions in the conservative cause and these Hess now mercilessly exhumed.

“I had once edited Washington World, a paper designed to prove that private enterprise could do anything better than government and make a profit to boot. Our chief backer was a Kansas wheat grower who, as it turned out, was getting a huge farm subsidy every year. The subsidies he was against were subsidies to poor people. I saw that conservatism in practice was shot through with that sort of thing. Conservatives reject the state as an instrument of beneficence but revere it as an instrument of chastisement. They would deny the Federal Government certain controls over people at the state level, which they say is more effective. This means that conservatives support the coercion of individuals at the most effective level!”

Management executives no longer seemed to Hess the sacred bearers of progress. “I began to ask, ‘What did we really do? What did we create?’ We invented nothing, made nothing, improved nothing. All we did was shift people and paper around. I was a managerial featherbedder. I had attended hundreds of meetings, but only at two or three did the subject of product improvement ever come up. The product is only incidental to the real business of business, which is making money for nothing. Next to politicians, the managerial class is the least productive, most parasitic group on earth.”

The build-up of the Vietnam war, and the refusal of the “Communist slaves” to either accept liberation or surrender to unprecedented destruction, gave Hess something concrete against which to measure the mysticism of cold war dogma.

“Most of the founders of National Review were disillusioned-Communists whose new cause in life was the destruction of the Soviet Union. The others were Catholics, like Bill Buckley and me, quack metaphysicians who regarded Communism as the Antichrist and the war against it as God’s fight. This group of accomplished pamphleteers took over conservatism from the old isolationist-pacifist right and converted it into a military-religious crusade against the Reds. It was a tragedy, for it left no political opposition to resist the liberal push toward more and more U.S. intervention around the globe. Buckley still talks about fighting Communism ‘unto the consummation of the world.’ He used to say that the continued existence of one Communist was an affront to God; well, it’s too late now, but I think it’s Buckley who is an affront to God.”

As with most heresies, Hess’s doctrinal doubts matured slowly. He still puttered at Congressional speechwriting, ghosted a syndicated column for Goldwater, groped for a place in politics in which his shifting outlook would fit. He didn’t find it. More and more he felt a need to go to work with his hands, to earn a living not tied to politics. So he enrolled in Bell’s Vocational High School in Washington and learned the welder’s trade. There he formed a partnership with Donald Bried, a black classmate; they mortgaged a portable welding rig and began to scour the area for work. They scared up a thriving business in emergency repair jobs on damaged vehicles and machinery, jobs that had to be done at night, on location, outside. If, during that winter, you were driving home from a Washington cocktail party on a freezing night and saw a flash of blue-white light coming from some deserted truck lot, it was probably Karl Hess atoning for politics.

As late as 1968 he kept one hand in the old game, doing temporary writing chores for old friends in the Congress. “I remember being called out from under a bulldozer one day to go to a State Department briefing.” But after writing speeches for Goldwater’s successful Senate comeback in 1968 (on the condition that he be excused for speeches on the cold war or on law and order) Hess dropped out of the system and continued his drift “left, left, left, back to the roots.”

“Looking back,” he muses, “I followed the standard progression that has led so many people from the right to the left: First, opposition to the New Deal, then Republican libertarianism, then the anti-Communist disaster, then an anti-political period with Ayn Rand and the objectivists, then the S.D.S. hits you like a bombshell with its synthesis of the values of individual freedom and communal life, then you want to do something about it and the left is where things are being done. I never speak anywhere without someone coming up after who says, ‘I was in the Goldwater campaign; now I’m with the New Left.’ The other day I met a Weatherman who once drove a sound truck for Barry.”

In 1969 Hess’s ex-peers in Republican circles came to power. Now and again they would hear stories about their old friend Karl that were puzzling. He seemed to have become some kind of outlaw. For instance, he was a tax evader, was giving people advice on how to break laws, was advocating the appropriation of public and corporate wealth, was an abettor of known felons, a poacher on Federal property. “Karl’s gone crazy,” they said. It was not his activities, per se, that shocked; after all, such practices are but the traditional pursuits of the politician-corporate lawyer caste; the basic financing of both political parties has always been founded upon them. No, it was not his pursuits that jarred, but his motives. For his declared aim was not to enrich politicians, but to eliminate them.

“We all liked Karl,” said one. “We wished him well with his acetylene torch. But this?” Indeed, to the old gang now up at the White House and on the Hill and at G.O.P. headquarters, the reports that filtered back on Hess put people in mind of the former club member taken to drink who is glimpsed occasionally on back streets in successive stages of decline and disrepair.

The word got around that Hess had extolled anarchy and revolution at a libertarian conference at the Diplomat Hotel in New York, from a stage dominated by the black flag. He had been gassed during a march on Fort Dix, arrested at an antiwar melee in Washington, summonsed by the tax police, spotted at meetings with Black Panthers. And there were the personal notes. His marriage had broken up; he had taken to racing motorcycles and wound up with his leg in a cast; he was broke; he now lived in, of all things, a houseboat — somewhere along the Anacostia River.

In the shadow of buildings where power sits, Hess was seen once in a while, with long hair and a black beard, wearing the field jacket and the olive drab pants and the boots that seemed to manifest both a disdain for the old lifestyle and a militant design to change it. Sometimes he wore a little Castro-type cap and a knapsack, as if he were headed for some distant and subversive rendezvous.

What seemed to old colleagues an inexplicable decline was by other standards a renaissance. Hess turned his blowtorch to metal sculpture, with such effect that museums began to order pieces from him and he staged a successful one-man show. Writing in his own name now, he produced a torrent of articles, climaxed by a monumental broadside in behalf of libertarianism (“The Death of Politics”) which won Hess the Playboy award for its best nonfiction piece of the year. He started books and embarked on lecture tours, but only in service of the Cause.

It is significant that the indictment of American government made by Hess in his writings and speeches is not dissimilar to that of such an establishment figure as John W. Gardner, former Cabinet member and foundation head, now chairman of Common Cause. Gardner stated recently: “State governments are mostly feeble. City government is archaic. The Congress of the United States is in grave need of overhaul. The parties are useless as instruments of the popular will…. Most parts of the system have grown so rigid that they cannot respond to impending disaster. They are so ill-designed for contemporary purposes that they waste taxpayers’ money, mangle good programs and frustrate every good man who enters the system.”

Mr. Gardner, however, prescribes a liberal cure — to make government more effective by revitalizing it through pressure exerted by a citizens’ lobby. Hess’ solution is both radical and reactionary: to eliminate government as far as possible, to throw out the Constitution and go back, for starters, to the Articles of Confederation — to that government which governs least.

To sustain this approach, Hess instinctively looked to the vestigial Old Right which he had long before abandoned and which now welcomed him home with fatted calf. He began writing for The Libertarian Forum, joining such Taft-era conservatives as economist Murray Rothbard and historian Leonard Liggio, who had held the Libertarian torch aloft for two decades while Conservatism went to war. And when Hess first proselytized among the young, it was to the conservative youths of Young Americans for Freedom that he turned, with some success. In time, he would turn toward the New Left, or to that portion of it which is anti-authoritarian and anarchist; that seemed to be where the numbers were, where the life-style was developing, and where, as he said, “people were making revolution, instead of talking about it.”

One of the obstacles to building an anarchist society is that there is no place where you can secede from the Union. Hess lives in a floating community of houseboats; periodically, its location shifts as it tries to keep a jump ahead of official harassment.

The heat, noise and tensions of Washington are still with you when you come upon the present site, a boatyard hidden behind a row of oak trees. You are immediately struck with the timeless serenity of the place, like the uncle’s farm of your childhood. It is cool under the trees; a tanned girl in frayed short-shorts lounges on a hammock; muscular young men tinker with motors in the wordless communion of craftsmen doing what they like. Down to the right, fragile catwalks lead to a wharf, the hitching post for more than a dozen blocky boats, which rise and fall almost imperceptibly. A hairy man wearing only a half loincloth is painting one of the boats; he stops to banter as two girls pass on the wharf. Beyond is the sweep of Anacostia, where in the distance sailboats glide and rowing teams compete. Up to the left is a shack which serves as the boatyard office and two sheds with a long workbench in front that seems to be communal headquarters.

There, attended by a noble looking goat and a big, black dog of indeterminate parentage, Hess receives visitors. He is dressed in a white hunter’s shirt, the kind Stewart Granger used to wear in safari movies. He bought it in Rhodesia, where he sculptured the 6-foot metal artwork that until recently stood in front of the Archives Building in Salisbury. He rises now in mock courtesy, sweeping his arm in a broad arc.

“Welcome to a self-governing community of 21 free citizens living amidst a colony of 900,000 disenfranchised subjects,” he says.

He conducts a tour of the place, with as much proprietary pride as if it were Mount Vernon. One of the community is Karl’s oldest son, Karl 4th, a strapping, articulate youth, formerly president of Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Virginia, now a conscientious objector; whatever other gulfs may now separate Hess from his past, he has conquered the generation gap.

“We share here in all the chores and decisions. No step is taken that any one of us violently objects to, and we’ve never yet come to the situation where the majority wanted to do something badly enough to alienate any one of us. In an anarchist world, of course, there would be thousands of different communities, enough variety to accommodate everyone except someone who wanted power over others. We have different leaders for every task, on the basis of personal competence. I’m the welder; someone else is the carpenter. Last week the job was getting the sheds ready for the winter, this week it’s mending the wharf. We have communal meals a couple of times a week, at which we decide things, and talk and entertain each other. This is more than an efficient way to live; it is a happy way. Everyone has a boat here, but nobody goes out in his boat because they don’t want to miss the fun.”

There are bicycles and fishing gear in the sheds; recreation and leisure are an important item.

“We want to do more than plot anarchy in cellars; we want to live the life. I’m 47 years old and this is the first time I have known what it means to live in a real family — to be surrounded in my daily life by people who take time for each other, who are completely open, who do everything together, whose happiness comes from sharing experiences, not owning things.”

The community is, of course, artificial in part: its members must earn their bread in the square world. One runs a duplicating shop in the National Press Building, another is a nurse, some are mechanics, others congenially earn marginal livelihoods in Washington left-wing think tanks. Hess earns money as he needs it from lecturing, writing, sculpturing, and occasionally getting back under the bulldozers. And he is a fellow of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, where he conducts a seminar on “The Ways in Which Left and Right Political Positions Have Merged in the New Left.”

He leads you down the wharf to a boat called the Tranquil. Below, in the cabin, a rifle occupies the place of honor on the fore bulkhead; a symbol of the anarchist belief in the right of self-defense against government. The interior is awash with books, pamphlets and unfinished drafts, for Hess has mastered anarchism just as methodically as he did Republicanism. He can tell you about a tractor factory in England, run on anarchist principles; about the solar cell, which transforms sunlight into electricity and may one day make us independent of Con Edison and continental power grids; about how there are now 42 neighborhood steel plants in the United States employing under 300 men each, doing a thriving business because they’re efficient — the wave of the future, he says. He can tell you how Ireland had an anarchist society for centuries, how it avoided crime without a police force, how it took the English hundreds of years to subjugate Ireland because the people had no Government to surrender for them. And he’s watching the experiments in Sweden to train the average citizen in methods of personal resistance and sabotage as a possible substitute for armies and air forces; and keeping track of how even the poorest ghetto neighborhoods pay out more in taxes than they receive in benefits and how the Black Panthers and their drive for local autonomy could be the salvation of the inner cities — if the Panthers aren’t exterminated and don’t turn Marxist in deed as they have in rhetoric.

“Anarchy is merely the lack of institutional authority,” he says. “There will always be ‘government’ in terms of voluntary, social organizations formed to do specific things — putting out fires, protection against thieves, different kinds of schools. If you want the service, you support it and participate; if you don’t want it, nobody can make you use it or pay for it. Why should anyone have permanent authority over you and your kids merely because they provide certain services?”

Hess has a book just out, a collaboration with Thomas Reeves on draft resistance (“The End of the Draft: The Feasibility of Freedom”). In it, Hess analyzes the draft as the instrument of the capitalist state, which routinely confiscates lives to fight wars, but dares not confiscate money or property, which it holds more inviolate than life — and which therefore must be borrowed and repaid with interest. Reeves follows with a libertarian formula for a voluntary army. A Hess autobiography is also in the works.

A wall calendar is all the office he needs now, and it is covered with scribbled data on campus speaking engagements — at L.S.U., Mankato State, American University, Berkeley and the University of Texas. He takes pleasure in the advertisement of his Texas appearance in the college paper: “Union Speakers Comm. (the people who brought you Abbie Hoffman) present: Karl Hess, farout freak, militant, commie, anarchist, pervert!!! currently assoc. editor of Ramparts….”

It is these campus appearances which buoy his hopes that anarchy is catching on. A few nights later I will accompany him to Trinity College, a Catholic girls’ institution in Washington, D.C., presumably the kind of place parents send their daughters in order to cloister them from the likes of Karl Hess. But there they are, a large, responsive audience. It is almost frightening — this matter-of-fact way in which the majority of these apple-cheeked young girls agree that American society is bankrupt. They are sympathetic to his theme, curious about the practical details of an anarchist society. For four hours they pepper him with questions and when it is time to lock up the building, they follow him out on the steps in the rain.

But that was in the future. Now we go back up on the little deck to catch the afternoon sun. Way out on the river a great fountain shoots white foam a hundred feet in the air. “That’s one of Lady Bird’s beautification projects,” Karl says. “At night it’s in color.”

He takes off his shirt, the prevailing fashion in this community. “Part of being free is to be comfortable,” he grins. “Clothes should be functional. A field jacket, for instance, is the most comfortable and useful garment ever devised. What could be less functional or comfortable than the white-collar uniform?”

A little booklet has fallen out of his shirt pocket. It is a membership card in the International Workers of the World, which I had wrongly thought was long ago defunct. “We used to have a labor movement in this country, until I.W.W. leaders were killed or imprisoned. You could tell labor unions had become captive when business and government began to praise them. They’re destroying the militant black leaders the same way now. If the slaughter continues, before long liberals will be asking, ‘What happened to the blacks? Why aren’t they militant anymore?'”

Why, you ask, are the hardhats so hostile to radicals?

“The men in construction unions are the least representative of workingmen. They are at the mercy of government appropriations, the pawns of goons who tell them whether they can work or not. They know that their wages are inflated, conditioned on a monopoly given them by politicians and on excluding blacks who would like to work. No wonder they are insecure and turn violent at the thought of change. They are creatures of the worst elements in our society, perfect examples of what government and its collusions do to decent people.”

Up at the boatyard office are two men in immaculate white-collar uniforms, F.B.I. agents, it turned out, looking for someone who’s not here. They will be back tomorrow. Though pleasant and courteous, they cast a menacing shadow in the late afternoon sun which lingers long after they are gone, a shadow that says: yours is a community living on borrowed time.

You hope Karl comes out of this all right. But you have premonitions of disaster — the tragedy of a real talent alienated and painting itself into a corner; the spiritual destruction that perhaps awaits a dedicated man who has been burned before and who is investing so much in the thin hope that the left and the Panthers and the militant radicals will not come to embody the authoritarianism, dogmatism and violence that were the cause of his retreat from the palace. Some say that Hess discovered the New Left too late, that it is already dead, that what remains is mostly Stalinoid.

So he is playing with dangerous people and ideas, and risks again being caught up in terrible contradictions. Maybe he will be the victim of state violence; maybe events will twist him into a position where he condones violence against the state.

Such forebodings are speculative; what is certain is that libertarianism has many more obstacles in its path than Goldwaterism ever did. Hess understands this better than anyone, and since he does, perhaps he’ll survive the bitterness and the pitfalls after all. He has laid it all out in his own words:

“Libertarianism is rejected by the modern left — which preaches individualism but practices collectivism. Capitalism is rejected by the modern right — which preaches enterprise but practices protectionism. The libertarian faith in the mind of men is rejected by religionists who have faith only in the sins of man. The libertarian insistence that men be free to spin cables of steel as well as dreams of smoke is rejected by hippies who adore nature but spurn creation. The libertarian insistence that each man is a sovereign land of liberty, with his primary allegiance to himself, is rejected by patriots who sing of freedom but also shout of banners and boundaries. There is no operating movement in the world today that is based upon a libertarian philosophy. If there were, it would be in the anomalous position of using political power to abolish political power.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s