For those libertarians that set their goals on the dismantling of the State, it is difficult to determine how a transition into a Stateless society would occur. Some advocate only non-violent civil disobedience under all circumstances, others hang their hope on political actions, and still others claim the only chance for the dissolution of the State is by way of revolution.
It is critically important to make the distinction that inciting revolution is not synonymous with demanding violent overthrow of the current ruling party. In fact, as Murray Rothbard pointed out in his classic 1969 article The Meaning of Revolution, which appeared in Libertarian Forum, the “classical radicals” of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were responsible for leading an ideological revolution. These brilliant theorists radically altered not only the United States, but the entire western world by introducing the classical liberal theory and principles that put an end to the reign of absolute states and monarchs. Without these revolutionaries we would not have seen the incredible progress and increase in the standard of living during this time period.
In The Meaning of Revolution, Rothbard describes how complex and vital each aspect of a revolutionary movements are in changing the hearts and minds of the populace.
Most people, when they hear the word “revolution”, think immediately and only of direct acts of physical confrontation with the State: raising barricades in the streets, battling a cop, storming the Bastille or other government buildings. But this is only one small part of revolution. 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.
Let us take, for example, the major model for libertarians in our time: the great classical liberal, or better, “classical radical”, revolutionary movement of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. These our ancestors created a vast, sprawling, and brilliant revolutionary movement, not only in the United States but throughout the Western world, that lasted for several centuries. This was the movement largely responsible for radically changing history, for almost destroying history as it was previously known to man. For before these centuries, the history of man, with one or two luminous exceptions, was a dark and gory record of tyranny and despotism, a record of various absolute States and monarchs crushing and exploiting their underlying populations, largely peasants, who lived a brief and brutish life at bare subsistence, devoid of hope or promise. It was a classical liberalism and radicalism that brought to the mass of people that hope and that promise, and which launched the great process of fulfillment. All that man has achieved today, in progress, in hope, in living standards, we can attribute to that revolutionary movement, to that “revolution”. This great revolution was our father; it is now our task to complete its unfinished promise.
There can be no doubt that revolution is the greatest enemy of the State. The State above all else wants to maintain power. Any actions that seek to reduce the hold the State maintains over its subject, such as starting a website that promotes libertarian principles, protesting State laws, or supporting political candidates friendly to liberty can be categorized as revolutionary actions. If an action seeks to reduce State power, then it is a revolutionary act.
The main goal of revolutionary acts should be to dismantle the State. Although, revolution is not the only means for a State to be eliminated. Other than an overthrow of a State, at the hands of its own citizens, the only other manner a State could lose power is through conquest by another State. Rothbard expands on the two ways the death of the State could occur in his powerful essay, The Anatomy of the State.
What the State fears above all, of course, is any fundamental threat to its own power and its own existence. The death of a State can come about in two major ways: (a) through conquest by another State, or (b) through revolutionary overthrow by its own subjects? In short, by war or revolution. War and revolution, as the two basic threats, invariably arouse in the State rulers their maximum efforts and maximum propaganda among the people. As stated above, any way must always be used to mobilize the people to come to the State’s defense in the belief that they are defending themselves. The fallacy of the idea becomes evident when conscription is wielded against those who refuse to “defend” themselves and are, therefore, forced into joining the State’s military band: needless to add, no “defense” is permitted them against this act of “their own” State.
In war, State power is pushed to its ultimate, and, under the slogans of “defense” and “emergency,” it can impose a tyranny upon the public such as might be openly resisted in time of peace. War thus provides many benefits to a State, and indeed every modern war has brought to the warring peoples a permanent legacy of increased State burdens upon society. War, moreover, provides to a State tempting opportunities for conquest of land areas over which it may exercise its monopoly of force. Randolph Bourne was certainly correct when he wrote that “war is the health of the State,” but to any particular State a war may spell either health or grave injury.
War provides the State with excuses to impose tyranny on the public under the guise that the actions of the State against the individuals are for their own “protection.” Rothbard emphasizes the irony of the State forcing individuals to conscript to defend the State. If an individual is forced to “defend themselves”, by enlisting to defend the State, then what measure is left to defend against this act of aggression for the State? The only action left would be refusing to sign-off to defend the State, thus committing a revolutionary act.
In his essay, War Peace and the State, Rothbard contrasts revolutions and inter-State wars. He notes that wars between States must always be condemned, but if revolutions meet certain qualifiers, they should be supported by libertarians. Revolutions, due to their nature, tend to limit destruction more than inter-State wars. During revolutionary warfare it is generally easier to pinpoint enemy forces, thus fewer innocent people are harmed. Also, unlike inter-State wars where funds are coerced from the populace, funds are normally submitted voluntarily to support revolutions.
Now there are crucial and vital differences between inter-State warfare on the one hand and revolutions against the State or conflicts between private individuals on the other. One vital difference is the shift in geography. In a revolution, the conflict takes place within the same geographical area: both the minions of the State and the revolutionaries inhabit the same territory. Inter-State warfare, on the other hand, takes place between two groups, each having a monopoly over its own geographical area; that is, it takes place between inhabitants of different territories. From this difference flow several important consequences: (1) in inter-State war the scope for the use of modern weapons of destruction is far greater. For if the “escalation” of weaponry in an intra-territorial conflict becomes too great, each side will blow itself up with the weapons directed against the other. Neither a revolutionary group nor a State combating revolution, for example, can use nuclear weapons against the other. But, on the other hand, when the warring parties inhabit different territorial areas, the scope for modern weaponry becomes enormous, and the entire arsenal of mass devastation can come into play. A second consequence (2) is that while it is possible for revolutionaries to pinpoint their targets and confine them to their State enemies, and thus avoid aggressing against innocent people, pinpointing is far less possible in an inter-State war. This is true even with older weapons; and, of course, with modern weapons there can be no pinpointing whatever. Furthermore, (3) since each State can mobilize all the people and resources in its territory, the other State comes to regard all the citizens of the opposing country as at least temporarily its enemies and to treat them accordingly by extending the war to them. Thus, all of the consequences of inter-territorial war make it almost inevitable that inter-State war will involve aggression by each side against the innocent civilians – the private individuals – of the other. This inevitability becomes absolute with modern weapons of mass destruction.
If one distinct attribute of inter-State war is inter-territoriality, another unique attribute stems from the fact that each State lives by taxation over its subjects. Any war against another State, therefore, involves the increase and extension of taxation-aggression over its own people. Conflicts between private individuals can be, and usually are, voluntarily waged and financed by the parties concerned. Revolutions can be, and often are, financed and fought by voluntary contributions of the public. But State wars can only be waged through aggression against the taxpayer.
All State wars, therefore, involve increased aggression against the State’s own taxpayers, and almost all State wars (all, in modern warfare) involve the maximum aggression (murder) against the innocent civilians ruled by the enemy State. On the other hand, revolutions are generally financed voluntarily and may pinpoint their violence to the State rulers, and private conflicts may confine their violence to the actual criminals. The libertarian must, therefore, conclude that, while some revolutions and some private conflicts may be legitimate, State wars are always to be condemned.
In the article Just War, which is based on a talk given at the Mises Institute’s Costs of War conference in Atlanta, May 1994, Rothbard discusses the only two wars in American history that meet his requirements as just wars, the American Revolution and the War for Southern Independence. Two wars of secession that were both revolutionary movements.
During my lifetime, my ideological and political activism has focused on opposition to America’s wars, first because I have believed our waging them to be unjust, and, second, because war, in the penetrating phrase of the libertarian Randolph Bourne in World War I, has always been “the health of the State,” an instrument for the aggrandizement of State power over the health, the lives, and the prosperity, of their subject citizens and social institutions. Even a just war cannot be entered into lightly; an unjust one must therefore be anathema.
There have been only two wars in American history that were, in my view, assuredly and unquestionably proper and just; not only that, the opposing side waged a war that was clearly and notably unjust. Why? Because we did not have to question whether a threat against our liberty and property was clear or present; in both of these wars, Americans were trying to rid themselves of an unwanted domination by another people. And in both cases, the other side ferociously tried to maintain their coercive rule over Americans. In each case, one side — “our side” if you will — was notably just, the other side — “their side” — unjust.
Check out our past editions of Mondays with Murray!
7/22/13 – Rothbard on the George Zimmerman Verdict
7/15/13 – Rothbard on Orwell’s “1984”
7/1/13 – Why Be Libertarian?
6/17/13 – Who was the “best” U.S. President?
6/10/13 – Rothbard on State Surveillance
5/27/13 – Rothbard on America’s “Two Just Wars”
5/20/13 – Do Animals Have “Rights”
5/13/13 – A Further Insight on IP
5/6/13 – The Boston Lockdown
4/29/13 – The Problem with Empirical Studies
4/22/13 – The Real Story of the Whiskey Rebellion
4/15/13 – What is an Entrepreneur?
4/8/13 – Rothbard on Intellectual Property
3/11/13 – Rothbard on Lysander Spooner
3/4/13 – Rothbard on Statism
2/25/13 – Rothbard on John Bolton and Ann Coulter
2/18/13 – Rothbard vs. Krugman on $9 Minimum Wage
2/11/13 – Time To Hoard Nickels
2/4/13 – The Death of Keynesian Economics
1/28/13 – Competition and Monopoly
1/21/13 – Rothbard Down The Memory Hole?
1/14/13 – We Are Not The Government
1//7/13 – Why Does Someone Become A Statist?
12/10/12 – Rothbard on Conspiracy Theory
12/3/12 – Rothbard on Secession
11/26/12 – Rothbard on the Drug War
11/19/12 – Rothbard on the Euro Crisis
11/12/12 – Rothbard on the Lions of Liberty
11/5/12 – Rothbard on Voting and Gas Lines
10/29/12 – Mythbusting the “Free Market Cartel”
10/22/12 – Rothbard on the Two Party Charade
10/15/12 – Rothbard on Private Roads
10/8/12 – Rothbard on Private Law
10/1/12 – Rothbard on Ron Paul
9/24/12 – Rothbard on Quantitative Easing