No word has done more to spark both disgust and delight than the word “revolution.” For libertarians, this is no exception. Oftentimes, the word conjures up memories of storming the Bastille, the Jacobin Terror, the firing squads and gulags of the Soviet Union, the anti-Western Third World revolutionary movements, and other pejorative images. For many libertarians, revolutionaries are statists who want to switch to a new way of screwing Peter to pay Paul. For them, revolutionaries are ineffective at fostering change for the better and are stupid demagogues whom any sane person ought to hate. Likewise, advocates of revolution are seen as agent provocateurs sent out to destroy the liberty movement and catch unsuspecting listeners into the web of the state’s fiery wrath. To them, it is almost axiomatic that revolutionary change will always make things worse than what they were before such change occurred, and considering the historical examples one can pick of how revolutionary change failed to bring about lasting change for liberty, it would be natural for them to blanch at my clarion call for a revolutionary movement.
Such concerns, understandable though they are, betray a real understanding of the true nature of an authentic revolutionary movement. Rather than a conspiracy clique of sinister Bavarians looking to manipulate events to their liking, a revolutionary movement’s structure and organization is multifaceted and encompassing of all people from all walks of life. The movement is committed to a central ambition, and though there may be some vagueness regarding the ramifications of this ambition, the central ambition is still held as the chief end of the revolutionary movement. Leading the revolutionary movement is a “cadre” of dedicated professionals who use the ideas they believe to build a cohesive ideology on which the revolutionary movement is based. Whether it is violent or nonviolent, every revolutionary movement shares a fiery dedication to a central, essential cause.
Likewise, through the course of time, every true revolution gets more radical, as moderate and prosaic desires give way to radical and sweeping impulses. Such was the case with the American and French revolutions, the Bolshevik phase of the Russian Revolution, as well as parts of the American civil-rights revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. These waves of radicalism can be seen even in the modern libertarian movement, when in the 20th century the old-fashioned minarchism of Ludwig von Mises, Leonard E. Read, and Ayn Rand were swept away by the radical anarchism of Murray Rothbard, Samuel Edward Konkin III, and David Friedman. While there are still advocates of “limited government,” the anarchist strain has by and large remained effective, even suffusing the minarchist spectrum of libertarianism with anarchistic sentiments about the nature of power and the merits of constitutions in trying to check power.
It is true that revolutions are betrayed, and, as anti-revolutionaries often seek to remind us, they don’t always make effective change. For indeed, one can say, many revolutionaries haven’t tasted of the crucial anarchist insights on the State and political power. As a result, they do end up exchanging one despot for another, as was sadly the case in the Bolshevik Revolution, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the “Jacobin” phase of the French Revolution. Having said that, the fact that many revolutionaries fail to become libertarians doesn’t mean that we ought to abandon revolution as a tactical strategy for liberty; all that is necessary for us is to focus our revolution on ending statism once and for all. The fact that revolutions often exchanged one ruler for another doesn’t have to dissuade us from attempting a viable anarcho-libertarian revolution that will finally do away with the State and its oppression.
The Lessons of Historic Revolutions
While not always libertarian, the historic revolutions of past and present can be suitable examples for libertarians who seek for viable strategies to win liberty. Even the more unsavory people and movements have valuable lessons if we are wise and discerning enough to glean those lessons.
Chief of the great revolutionary movements is the American Revolution (1765-1783). Being a true revolution, it encompassed both lower and higher class Englishmen who both shared grievances against their government; it was by and large committed to the central goal of liberty, though there were actors within the revolution whose desires were arguably antithetical to the libertarian thrust of the Revolution. Likewise, it was coordinated and led by the “cadre” of dedicated revolutionaries such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and others, who borrowed from their classical libertarian and republican forebears and fused their thoughts into a coherent libertarian-republican ideology that buttressed the Revolution. In Samuel Adams, the great father of the Revolution and a towering leader in the history of freedom, libertarians can see a sterling example of fearless advocacy to the cause of freedom and readiness to oppose any and all forms of statism that the British could conjure up. In effect, he was a radical before it was popular to be so. Other lessons to be learned from this revolution is that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The lack of eternal vigilance against statism, I believe, was the reason that the libertarian ends of the Revolution were somewhat thwarted by the imposition of the Constitution. If we fail to show this eternal vigilance in our own movement, then our message will be compromised, and we will be all the worse for it.
In our time, there are also the examples of Vladimir Lenin. While we can’t necessarily laud their statism or their violations of libertarian principle, we can take invaluable lessons from their strategy, their fearless dedication to their cause, and their spirit of revolutionism. In fact, Murray Rothbard, in the heydey of the 20th century libertarian movement, learned these lessons regarding “cadre” leadership and as a result said that “[t]here is nothing sinister or ‘undemocratic,’ then, in postulating a [cadre] of libertarians any more than there is in talking of a [cadre] of Buddhists or of physicists.” (Rothbard, 1982) (p. 265) While it is true that many anarchists and libertarians will object to cadre leadership on the grounds of opposition to centralization, it is an undeniable fact that the libertarian movement, like any other, needs dedicated professionals and leaders who tirelessly advance its ideology. In Lenin’s case, this meant taking leadership of the Bolshevik revolution when the reformist provisional government caused discontent in so many people who hoped for an end to Russian involvement in World War I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks rose to the challenge by sweeping away the provisional government and instituting the revolutionary program. Part of the reason for the Bolsheviks’s striking success was their prior dedication to revolutionary theory and the formation of a self-conscious movement to advance it. If anything, that a statist communist should serve as an example of the need for a revolutionary movement is all the more evident of the lack of one amongst ourselves.
Still another modern example would be that of the Chilean revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Again, we can’t condone his statism, but we can still admire him as an exemplar of the revolutionary spirit. Even Murray Rothbard himself, whom no one can truly call a socialist or a communist, had this to say in Che’s favor:
What made Che such a heroic figure for our time is that he, more than any man of our epoch or even of our century, was the living embodiment of the principle of Revolution. More than any man since the lovable but entirely ineffectual nineteenth-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, Che earned the title of “professional revolutionary.” (Rothbard, 1967)
Likewise, Che, being quasi-anarchistic in his otherwise problematic doctrine, exhibited anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism, two traits which the late classical liberal historian Leonard Liggio regarded as “the precondition for freedom and progress.” But his greatest trait, the one that dwarfs all the others, is his bravery and fearlessness, which ought to be emulated by all people, especially by libertarians.
The Classical Liberal Revolution and Its Promise
In our discussion of revolution, we ought not to forget that, more than the struggle against the state, the revolution is about radical change. Murray Rothbard, in “The Meaning of Revolution,” rightly expressed the real meaning of “revolution” better than I could:
Revolution is a mighty, complex, long-run process, a complicated movement with many vital parts and functions. It is the pamphleteer writing in his study, it is the journalist, the political club, the agitator, the organizer, the campus activist, the theoretician, the philanthropist. It is all this and much more. Each person and group has its part to play in this great complex movement. (Rothbard, 1969)
The greatest revolution of this sort in the history of mankind is the Classical Liberal Revolution, the mighty liberal movement that arose in Western Europe (and eventually in North America) in response to the crushing despotism of the Old Order. Starting with the Levellers and John Locke and eventually gaining crucial victories for freedom in England through both the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, the liberal revolution eventually reached its apex in the American and the French revolutions. Through these violent revolutions, the liberal revolution broke the bondage of the Old Order and gained major victories for individual liberty, progress, and economic freedom. Through the influence of great liberals such as Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Francois Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Frederic Bastiat, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Milton, the liberal movement became the great, multifaceted, and complex revolution that it was famed for being. Not everyone agreed with specifics of the implications of liberalism, but all of them believed in the crucial insight of a self-managing order, an order without the capricious and arbitrary rule of a despotic state. As libertarian commentator Lew Rockwell notes, ”society contains within itself the capacity for self-management, and there is nothing that government can do to improve on the results of the voluntary association, exchange, creativity, and choices of every member of the human family.” (Rockwell, 2010)
Even the French Revolution, long attacked by many libertarians and conservatives as the root of modern totalitarianism and the ills that plague us today, was part of the grand liberal revolution, because the goals of the revolutionaries — anti-feudalism, religious freedom, private property, individual freedom — were largely congruent with the liberal creed that the French revolutionaries, even the Jacobins, subscribed to. Despite Robespierre and the Jacobin Terror, it would not be incorrect to assert that the French Revolution left a liberal impetus so powerful that it transformed France from a feudal-absolutist society to a relatively more liberal nation. Barrington Moore Jr., in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, says:
The Revolution mortally wounded the whole interlocking complex of aristocratic privilege: monarchy, landed aristocracy, and seigneurial rights, a complex that constituted the essence of the ancien régime. It did so in the name of private property and equality before the law. To deny that the predominant thrust and chief consequences of the Revolution were bourgeois and capitalist is to engage in a trivial quibble….That the ultimate outcome of all the forces at work was a victory for an economic system of private property and a political system based upon equality before the law…and that the Revolution was a crucial feature in this general development, are truths undeniable even if they are familiar. (Moore, 2003) (pp. 105-06)
To those who point out the Bourbon restoration as proof of the Revolution’s failure to bring lasting change for liberty, Moore trenchantly responds:
During the Restoration, it is quite true, a Bourbon king reigned for another decade and a half, from 1815 to 1930, and the old landed aristocracy regained temporarily a great deal of what it had lost….At this point the old aristocracy disappeared from the political arena as a coherent and effective political group, even if it rtained considerable social prestige for a long time afterward. (ibid.)
All in all, the main value of the classical liberal revolution, however unfinished and imperfect in its promise it was, was that it brought to the world the language of freedom and liberty in such a way as has never been before heard or experienced. To us libertarians, the logical heirs of classical liberalism, the revolution offers us the hope that even in times of tyranny and statism, liberty can triumph and defeat the forces of oppression. At first, the classical liberal cause seemed hopeless and doomed to failure in a world so entrenched in the ways of the Old Order. But through the dedication of a few small voices and through providential circumstances, the liberal revolution gained a foothold through Western Civilization and impacted it for the better.
We, being the heirs of classical liberalism, ultimately have greater reason for long-term hope than even our forebears had, for the classical liberal revolution changed the world so permanently that we can build upon our honorable heritage and make a greater revolution that will finish the promise of liberalism.
Responses to Potential Objections
Some might still say that post-revolutionary conditions will be worse than pre-revolutionary conditions, however bad those may have been. They argue from examples such as the French and Russian Revolutions, as well as the 20th century Third-World revolutionary movements, that once the revolutionaries overthrew the ruling class, they ended up becoming just as bad as, if not worse than, the former rulers. The anti-revolutionaries are right to a degree, as revolutions are painful and cataclysmic processes; however, the cataclysmic nature of revolution doesn’t negate the morality of it, nor does it mean that revolution never improves things. Far from it; history testifies to the positive successes of revolutionary change. The American Revolution, for example, not only displaced the British regime but also did away with even the internal colonial regimes that existed. Murray Rothbard, in Conceived in Liberty, gives an exhaustive documentation of the radical social change wrought by the American Revolution, resulting in profoundly libertarian steps such as the abolition of feudalism, the redistribution of feudal estates and lands, the rise of quasi-anarchistic governance via revolutionary committees, the conscious classical liberalism of parts of the Constitution, and the beginnings of abolitionism. Likewise, the libertarian thrust of the French Revolution resulted in highly liberal changes in the direction of freedom, and even the Russian Revolution had the quasi-free market New Economic Policy (NEP) that resulted in increased agricultural production in Russia and caused a temporary economic recovery for the country.
But even the American Revolution has reached the ire of some libertarians, in part because (a) it did not end with the total abolition of statism and (b) the American government today is more tyrannical than the British regime. To them, the Revolution must be lumped in with the other “failed” revolutions. However, to view the American Revolution as a complete failure is to have a false understanding of history, for despite the arguably statist nature of the Constitution and of Federalism, America was still a roughly liberal nation, possessing a generally laissez-faire economy and a relatively free society that was unheard of before. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is but one of the few classical liberal testimonials in favor of the American nation that has risen, and a quick reading of the classical liberal works on America could prove a marvelous corrective to some of the more overly iconoclastic analyses of American history that have permeated some sects of the libertarian movement. Even in the 20th and 21st centuries, where liberalism gave way to the statism that we so detest, it can be said that the American Revolution has made us all better off because of its enduring libertarian spirit and the liberating effects that can still be felt in today’s world.
But, asks the libertarian anti-revolutionary, if we start a revolution without changing the hearts and minds of the people, won’t we fail in bringing true liberty? Yes. However, I am not promoting an immediate storming of the Capitol. But what I am talking of is the need for libertarians to become professional revolutionaries if we ever hope to see any chance for liberty in our lifetimes. For by becoming professionals we do better to defend our cause against opposition, to provide a viable and principled alternative to the status quo, and to lead the movement to victory.
“There can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory.” So wisely said Lenin, whose words are more valuable than ever for the libertarian. In order to develop a powerful and complete revolution of liberty, we must have the revolutionary theory dedicated to the old liberal ideals of “life, liberty, and property.” We must welcome any non-aggressive strategy in the direction of liberty, be it vanguardism, secessionism, involution, seasteading, agorism, cryptocurrency, or propaganda. In keeping with our dedication to freedom, we must also welcome any steps, marginal or massive, toward liberty. And above al, the professional libertarian revolutionaries must seek to convert either the masses or at the very least a large minority if they hope to bring major change.
Lastly, as Karl Marx himself said, “we have nothing to lose but our chains.” I would extend his statement in this manner: we have nothing to lose but the chains of statism that are holding us backwards from progress and liberty. Whatever differences we may have, we libertarians ought to stand united by the common fundamentals of the libertarian creed. For by our unity and our strength do we light the sparks of true revolution.
Libertarians, we have a world to liberate.
Moore, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Beacon Press. 1993. Originally published in 1967 by Beacon Press. Print
Rothbard, Murray. “Ernesto Che Guevara, RIP.” Left and Right. Vol. 3, No. 3, Autumn 1967.
— The Ethics of Liberty. New York University. 1982/1998. Print
— ”The Meaning of Revolution.” The Libertarian Forum, Vol. 1.7, July 1, 1969