by Murray N. Rothbard by Murray N. Rothbard
Leading the cultural struggle in America was H.L. Mencken, undoubtedly the single most influential intellectual of the 1920s; a notable individualist and libertarian, Mencken sailed into battle with characteristic verve and wit, denouncing the stodgy culture and the "Babbittry" of businessmen, and calling for unrestricted freedom of the individual. For Mencken, too, it was the trauma of World War I, and its domestic and foreign evils, that mobilized and intensified his concern for politics – a concern aggravated by the despotism of Prohibition, surely the greatest single act of tyranny ever imposed in America.
Nowadays, when Prohibition is considered a "right-wing" movement, it is forgotten that every reform movement of the nineteenth century – every moralistic group trying to bring the "uplift" to America by force of law – included Prohibition as one of its cherished programs. To Mencken, the battle against Prohibition was merely a fight against the most conspicuous of the tyrannical and statist "reforms" being proposed against the American public.
And so, Mencken's highly influential monthly The American Mercury, founded in 1924, opened its pages to writers of all parts of the Opposition – especially to attacks on American culture and mores, to assaults on censorship and the championing of civil liberties, and to revisionism on the war. Thus, the Mercury featured two prominent revisionists of World War I: Harry Elmer Barnes and Barnes's student, C. Hartley Grattan, whose delightful series in the magazine, "When Historians Cut Loose," acidly demolished the war propaganda of America's leading historians. Mencken's cultural scorn for the American "booboisie" was embodied in his famous "Americana" column, which simply reprinted news items on the idiocies of American life without editorial comment.
The enormous scope of Mencken's interests, coupled with his scintillating wit and style (Mencken was labeled by Joseph Wood Krutch as "the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century"), served to obscure for his generation of youthful followers and admirers the remarkable consistency of his thought. When, decades after his former prominence, Mencken collected the best of his old writings in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1948), the book was reviewed in the New Leader by the eminent literary critic Samuel Putnam. Putnam reacted in considerable surprise; remembering Mencken from his youth as merely a glib cynic, Putnam found to his admiring astonishment that H.L.M. had always been a "Tory anarchist" – an apt summation for the intellectual leader of the 1920s.
But H.L. Mencken was not the only editor leading the new upsurge of individualistic opposition during the 1920s. From a similar though more moderate stance, the Nation of Mencken's friend Oswald Garrison Villard continued to serve as an outstanding voice for peace, revisionism on World War I, and opposition to the imperialist status quo imposed at Versailles. Villard, at the end of the war, acknowledged that the war had pushed him far to the left, not in the sense of adopting socialism, but in being thoroughly "against the present political order." Denounced by conservatives as pacifist, pro-German, and "Bolshevist," Villard found himself forced into a political and journalistic alliance with socialists and progressives who shared his hostility to the existing American and world order.1
From a still more radical and individualist perspective, Mencken's friend and fellow "Tory anarchist" Albert Jay Nock cofounded and coedited, along with Francis Neilson, the new weekly Freeman from 1920 to 1924. The Freeman, too, opened its pages to all left-oppositionists to the political order. With the laissez-faire individualist Nock as principal editor, the Freeman was a center of radical thought and expression among oppositionist intellectuals. Rebuffing the Nation's welcome to the new Freeman as a fellow liberal weekly, Nock declared that he was not a liberal but a radical. "We can not help remembering," wrote Nock bitterly, "that this was a liberal's war, a liberal's peace, and that the present state of things is the consummation of a fairly long, fairly extensive, and extremely costly experiment with liberalism in political power."2 To Nock, radicalism meant that the State was to be considered as an antisocial institution rather than as the typically liberal instrument of social reform. And Nock, like Mencken, gladly opened the pages of his journal to all manner of radical, anti-Establishment opinion, including Van Wyck Brooks, Bertrand Russell, Louis Untermeyer, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, William C. Bullitt, and Charles A. Beard.
In particular, while an individualist and libertarian, Nock welcomed the Soviet revolution as a successful overthrow of a frozen and reactionary State apparatus. Above all, Nock, in opposing the postwar settlement, denounced the American and Allied intervention in the [Russian] Civil War. Nock and Neilson saw clearly that the American intervention was setting the stage for a continuing and permanent imposition of American might throughout the world. After the folding of the Freeman in 1924, Nock continued to be prominent as a distinguished essayist in the leading magazines, including his famous "Anarchist's Progress."3
Most of this loose coalition of individualistic radicals was totally disillusioned with the political process, but to the extent that they distinguished between existing parties, the Republican Party was clearly the major enemy. Eternal Hamiltonian champions of Big Government and intimate government "partnership" with Big Business through tariffs, subsidies, and contracts, long-time brandishers of the Imperial big stick, the Republicans had capped their antilibertarian sins by being the party most dedicated to the tyranny of Prohibition, an evil that particularly enraged H.L. Mencken. Much of the opposition (e.g., Mencken, Villard) supported the short-lived LaFollette Progressive movement of 1924, and the Progressive Senator William E. Borah (R-Idaho) was an opposition hero in leading the fight against the war and the League of Nations, and in advocating recognition of Soviet Russia. But the nearest political home was the conservative Bourbon, non-Wilsonian or "Cleveland" wing of the Democratic Party, a wing that at least tended to be "wet," was opposed to war and foreign intervention, and favored free trade and strictly minimal government. Mencken, the most politically minded of the group, felt closest in politics to Governor Albert Ritchie, the states-rights Democrat from Maryland, and to Senator James Reed, Democrat of Missouri, a man staunchly "isolationist" and anti-intervention in foreign affairs and pro-laissez-faire at home.
It was this conservative wing of the Democratic Party, headed by Charles Michelson, Jouett Shouse, and John J. Raskob, which launched a determined attack on Herbert Hoover in the late 1920s for his adherence to Prohibition and to Big Government generally. It was this wing that would later give rise to the much-maligned Liberty League.
To Mencken and to Nock, in fact, Herbert Hoover – the pro-war Wilsonian and interventionist, the Food Czar of the war, the champion of Big Government, of high tariffs and business cartels, the pious moralist and apologist for Prohibition – embodied everything they abhorred in American political life. They were clearly leaders of the individualist opposition to Hoover's conservative statism.
Since they were, in their very different styles, the leaders of libertarian thought in America during the 1920s, Mencken and Nock deserve a little closer scrutiny. The essence of Mencken's remarkably consistent "Tory anarchism" was embodied in the discussion of government that he was later to select for his Chrestomathy:
All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible . . . to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally [as Mencken clearly was not] he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are. . . .
The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle onward, is one which lets the individual alone – one which barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have . . . taken up my public duties in Hell.4
Again, Mencken on the State as inherent exploitation:
The average man, whatever his errors otherwise, at least sees clearly that government is something lying outside him and outside the generality of his fellow men – that it is a separate, independent and often hostile power, only partly under his control and capable of doing him great harm. . . . Is it a fact of no significance that robbing the government is everywhere regarded as a crime of less magnitude than robbing an individual, or even a corporation? . . .
What lies behind all this, I believe, is a deep sense of the fundamental antagonism between the government and the people it governs. It is apprehended, not as a committee of citizens chosen to carry on the communal business of the whole population, but as a separate and autonomous corporation, mainly devoted to exploiting the population for the benefit of its own members. Robbing it is thus an act almost devoid of infamy. . . . When a private citizen is robbed a worthy man is deprived of the fruits of his industry and thrift; when the government is robbed the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had before. The notion that they have earned that money is never entertained; to most sensible men it would seem ludicrous. They are simply rascals who, by accidents of law, have a somewhat dubious right to a share in the earnings of their fellow men. When that share is diminished by private enterprise the business is, on the whole, far more laudable than not.
The intelligent man, when he pays taxes, certainly does not believe that he is making a prudent and productive investment of his money; on the contrary, he feels that he is being mulcted in an excessive amount for services that, in the main, are downright inimical to him. . . . He sees in even the most essential of them an agency for making it easier for the exploiters constituting the government to rob him. In these exploiters themselves he has no confidence whatever. He sees them as purely predatory and useless. . . . They constitute a power that stands over him constantly, ever alert for new chances to squeeze him. If they could do so safely, they would strip him to his hide. If they leave him anything at all, it is simply prudentially, as a farmer leaves a hen some of her eggs.
This gang is well-nigh immune to punishment. . . . Since the first days of the Republic, less than a dozen of its members have been impeached, and only a few obscure under-strappers have been put into prison. The number of men sitting at Atlanta and Leavenworth for revolting against the extortions of government is always ten times as great as the number of government officials condemned for oppressing the taxpayers to their own gain. Government, today, has grown too strong to be safe. There are no longer any citizens in the world; there are only subjects. They work day in and day out for their masters; they are bound to die for their masters at call. . . . On some bright tomorrow, a geological epoch or two hence, they will come to the end of their endurance.5
In letters to his friends, Mencken reiterated his emphasis on individual liberty. At one time he wrote that he believed in absolute human liberty "up to the limit of the unbearable, and even beyond." To his old friend Hamilton Owens he declared,
I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say . . . [and] the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.6
And in a privately written "Addendum on Aims," Mencken declared that
I am an extreme libertarian, and believe in absolute free speech. . . . I am against jailing men for their opinions, or, for that matter, for anything else.7
Part of Mencken's antipathy to reform stemmed from his oft-reiterated belief that "all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time." Mencken stressed this theme in the noble and moving peroration to his Credo, written for a "What I Believe" series in a leading magazine:
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty, and that the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms. . . .
I believe in complete freedom of thought and speech – alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run. I believe in the reality of progress. I –
But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than to be ignorant.8
Insofar as he was interested in economic matters, Mencken, as a corollary to his libertarian views, was a staunch believer in capitalism. He praised Sir Ernest Benn's paean to a free-market economy, and declared that to capitalism "we owe . . . almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today." He agreed with Benn that "nothing government does is ever done as cheaply and efficiently as the same thing might be done by private enterprise."9
But, in keeping with his individualism and libertarianism, Mencken's devotion to capitalism was to the free market, and not to the monopoly statism that he saw ruling America in the 1920s. Hence he was as willing as any socialist to point the finger at the responsibility of Big Business for the growth of statism. Thus, in analyzing the 1924 presidential election, Mencken wrote:
Big Business, it appears, is in favor of him [Coolidge]. . . . The fact should be sufficient to make the judicious regard him somewhat suspiciously. For Big Business, in America . . . is frankly on the make, day in and day out. . . . Big Business was in favor of Prohibition, believing that a sober workman would make a better slave than one with a few drinks in him. It was in favor of all the gross robberies and extortions that went on during the war, and profited by all of them. It was in favor of all the crude throttling of free speech that was then undertaken in the name of patriotism, and is still in favor of it.10
As for John W. Davis, the Democratic candidate, Mencken noted that he was said to be a good lawyer – not, for Mencken, a favorable recommendation, since lawyers
are responsible for nine-tenths of the useless and vicious laws that now clutter the statute-books, and for all the evils that go with the vain attempt to enforce them. Every Federal judge is a lawyer. So are most Congressmen. Every invasion of the plain rights of the citizen has a lawyer behind it. If all lawyers were hanged tomorrow . . . we'd all be freer and safer, and our taxes would be reduced by almost a half.
And what is more,
Dr. Davis is a lawyer whose life has been devoted to protecting the great enterprises of Big Business. He used to work for J. Pierpont Morgan, and he has himself said that he is proud of the fact. Mr. Morgan is an international banker, engaged in squeezing nations that are hard up and in trouble. His operations are safeguarded for him by the manpower of the United States. He was one of the principal beneficiaries of the late war, and made millions out of it. The Government hospitals are now full of one-legged soldiers who gallantly protected his investments then, and the public schools are full of boys who will protect his investments tomorrow.11
In fact, the following brief analysis of the postwar settlement combines Mencken's assessment of the determining influence of Big Business with the bitterness of all the individualists at the war and its aftermath:
When he was in the Senate Dr. Harding was known as a Standard Oil Senator – and Standard Oil, as everyone knows, was strongly against our going into the League of Nations, chiefly because England would run the league and be in a position to keep Americans out of the new oil fields in the Near East. The Morgans and their pawnbroker allies, of course, were equally strong for going in, since getting Uncle Sam under the English hoof would materially protect their English and other foreign investments. Thus the issue joined, and on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November 1920, the Morgans, after six years of superb Geschaft under the Anglomaniacal Woodrow, got a bad beating.12
But as a result, Mencken went on, the Morgans decided to come to terms with the foe, and therefore, at the Lausanne Conference of 1922–23, "the English agreed to let the Standard Oil crowd in on the oil fields of the Levant," and J.P. Morgan visited Harding at the White House, after which "Dr. Harding began to hear a voice from the burning bush counseling him to disregard the prejudice of the voters who elected him and to edge the U.S. into a Grand International Court of Justice."13
While scarcely as well known as Mencken, Albert Nock more than any other person supplied twentieth-century libertarianism with a positive, systematic theory. In a series of essays in the 1923 Freeman on "The State," Nock built upon Herbert Spencer and the great German sociologist and follower of Henry George, Franz Oppenheimer, whose brilliant little classic, The State,14 had just been reprinted. Oppenheimer had pointed out that man tries to acquire wealth in the easiest possible way, and that there were two mutually exclusive paths to obtain wealth. One was the peaceful path of producing something and voluntarily exchanging that product for the product of someone else; this path of production and voluntary exchange Oppenheimer called the "economic means." The other road to wealth was coercive expropriation: the seizure of the product of another by the use of violence. This Oppenheimer termed the "political means." And from his historical inquiry into the genesis of States Oppenheimer defined the State as the "organization of the political means." Hence, Nock concluded, the State itself was evil, and was always the highroad by which varying groups could seize State power and use it to become an exploiting, or ruling, class, at the expense of the remainder of the ruled or subject population. Nock therefore defined the State as that institution which "claims and exercises the monopoly of crime" over a territorial area; "it forbids private murder, but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft, but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants."15
In his magnum opus, Our Enemy, the State, Nock expanded on his theory and applied it to American history, in particular the formation of the American Constitution. In contrast to the traditional conservative worshippers of the Constitution, Nock applied Charles A. Beard's thesis to the history of America, seeing it as a succession of class rule by various groups of privileged businessmen, and the Constitution as a strong national government brought into being in order to create and extend such privilege. The Constitution, wrote Nock,
enabled an ever-closer centralization of control over the political means. For instance . . . many an industrialist could see the great primary advantage of being able to extend his exploiting opportunities over a nationwide free-trade area walled in by a general tariff. . . . Any speculator in depreciated public securities would be strongly for a system that could offer him the use of the political means to bring back their face value. Any shipowner or foreign trader would be quick to see that his bread was buttered on the side of a national State which, if properly approached, might lend him the use of the political means by way of a subsidy, or would be able to back up some profitable but dubious freebooting enterprise with "diplomatic representations" or with reprisals.
Nock concluded that those economic interests, in opposition to the mass of the nation's farmers, "planned and executed a coup d'e-tat, simply tossing the Articles of Confederation into the wastebasket."16
While the Nock-Oppenheimer class analysis superficially resembles that of Marx, and a Nockian would, like Lenin, look at all State action whatever in terms of "Who? Whom?" (Who is benefiting at the expense of Whom?), it is important to recognize the crucial differences. For while Nock and Marx would agree on the Oriental Despotic and feudal periods' ruling classes in privilege over the ruled, they would differ on the analysis of businessmen on the free market. For to Nock, antagonistic classes, the rulers and the ruled, can only be created by accession to State privilege; it is the use of the State instrument that brings these antagonistic classes into being. While Marx would agree on pre-capitalistic eras, he of course also concluded that businessmen and workers were in class antagonism to each other even in a free-market economy, with employers exploiting workers. To the Nockian, businessmen and workers are in harmony – as are everyone else – in the free market and free society, and it is only through State intervention that antagonistic classes are created.17
Thus, to Nock the two basic classes at any time are those running the State and those being run by it: as the Populist leader Sockless Jerry Simpson once put it, "the robbers and the robbed." Nock therefore coined the concepts "State power" and "social power." "Social power" was the power over nature exerted by free men in voluntary economic and social relationships; social power was the progress of civilization, its learning, its technology, its structure of capital investment. "State power" was the coercive and parasitic expropriation of social power for the benefit of the rulers: the use of the "political means" to wealth. The history of man, then, could be seen as an eternal race between social power and State power, with society creating and developing new wealth, later to be seized, controlled, and exploited by the State.
No more than Mencken was Nock happy about the role of big business in the twentieth century's onrush toward statism. We have already seen his caustic Beardian view toward the adoption of the Constitution. When the New Deal arrived, Nock could only snort in disdain at the mock wails about collectivism raised in various business circles:
It is one of the few amusing things in our rather stodgy world that those who today are behaving most tremendously about collectivism and the Red menace are the very ones who have cajoled, bribed, flattered and bedeviled the State into taking each and every one of the successive steps that lead straight to collectivism. . . . Who hectored the State into the shipping business, and plumped for setting up the Shipping Board? Who pestered the State into setting up the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Farm Board? Who got the State to go into the transportation business on our inland waterways? Who is always urging the State to "regulate" and
"supervise" this, that, and the other routine process of financial, industrial, and commercial enterprise? Who took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and sweat blood hour after hour over helping the State construct the codes of the late-lamented National Recovery Act? None but the same Peter Schlemihl who is now half out of his mind about the approaching spectre of collectivism.18
Or, as Nock summed it up,
The simple truth is that our businessmen do not want a government that will let business alone. They want a government they can use. Offer them one made on Spencer's model, and they would see the country blow up before they would accept it.19
- Villard to Hutchins Hapgood, May 19, 1919. Michael Wreszin, Oswald Garrison Villard (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965), pp. 75 and 125–30.
- Albert Jay Nock, "Our Duty Towards Europe," The Freeman 7 (August 8, 1923): 508; quoted in Robert M. Crunden, The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1964), p. 77.
- Albert Jay Nock, On Doing the Right Thing, and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1928).
- From the Smart Set, December 1919. H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (New York: Knopf, 1949), pp. 145–46. See also Murray N. Rothbard, "H.L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian," New Individualist Review 2, no. 2 (Summer, 1962): 15–27.
- From the American Mercury, February 1925. Mencken, Chrestomathy, pp. 146–48.
- Guy Forgue, ed., Letters of H.L. Mencken (New York: Knopf, 1961), pp. xiii, 189.
- H.L. Mencken, "What I Believe," The Forum 84 (September 1930): 139.
- H.L. Mencken, "Babbitt as Philosopher" (review of Henry Ford, Today and Tomorrow, and Ernest J.P. Benn, The Confessions of a Capitalist), The American Mercury 9 (September 1926): 126–27. Also see Mencken, "Capitalism," Baltimore Evening Sun, January 14, 1935, reprinted in Chrestomathy, p. 294.
- H.L. Mencken, "Breathing Space," Baltimore Evening Sun, August 4, 1924; reprinted in H.L. Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), pp. 83–84.
- H.L. Mencken, "Next Year's Struggle," Baltimore Evening Sun, June 11, 1923; reprinted in Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe, pp. 56–57.
- Albert Jay Nock, Our Enemy, the State (1922; New York: William Morrow, 1935), pp. 162ff.
- This idea of classes as being created by States was the pre-Marxian idea of classes; two of its earliest theorists were the French individualist and libertarian thinkers of the post-Napoleonic Restoration period, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. For several years after the Restoration, Comte and Dunoyer were the mentors of Count Saint-Simon, who adopted their class analysis; the later Saint-Simonians then modified it to include businessmen as being class-exploiters of workers, and the latter was adopted by Marx. I am indebted to Professor Leonard Liggio's researches on Comte and Dunoyer. As far as I know, the only discussion of them in English, and that inadequate, is Elie Halevy, The Era of Tyrannies (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1965), pp. 21–60. Gabriel Kolko's critique of Marx's theory of the State is done from a quite similar perspective. Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1963), pp. 287ff.
- Albert Jay Nock, "Imposter-Terms," Atlantic Monthly (February 1936): 161–69.
- Nock to Ellen Winsor, August 22, 1938. F.W. Garrison, ed., Letters from Albert Jay Nock (Caldwell, Id.: Caxton Printers, 1949), p. 105.