The Meaning of Revolution

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This first appeared in The Libertarian Forum, Volume I, NO.VII, July 1, 1969

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.

This classical revolutionary movement was made up of many parts. It was the libertarian theorists and ideologists, the men who created and wove the strands of libertarian theory and principle: the La Boeties, the Levellers in seventeenth-century England, the eighteenth-century radicals – the philosophes, the physiocrats, the English radicals, the Patrick Henrys and Tom Paines of the American Revolution, the James Mills and Cobdens of nineteenth-century England, the Jacksonians and abolitionists and Thoreaus in America, the Bastiats and Molinaris in France. The vital scholarly work of Caroline Robbins and Bernard Bailyn, for example, has demonstrated the continuity of libertarian classical radical ideas and movements, from the seventeenth-century English revolutionaries down through the American Revolution a century and a half later.

Theories blended into activist movements, rising movements calling for individual liberty, a free-market economy, the overthrow of feudalism and mercantilist statism, an end to theocracy and war and their replacement by freedom and international peace. Once in a while, these movements erupted into violent “revolutions” that brought giant steps in the direction of liberty: the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution. (Barrington Moore, Jr. has shown the intimate connection between these violent revolutions and the freedoms that the Western world has been able to take from the State.) The result was enormous strides for freedom and the prosperity unleashed by the consequent Industrial Revolution. The barricades, while important, were just one small part of this great process.

Socialism is neither genuinely radical nor truly revolutionary. Socialism is a reactionary reversion, a self-contradictory attempt to achieve classical radical ends liberty, progress, the withering away or abolition of the State, by using old-fashioned statist and Tory means: collectivism and State control. Socialism is a New Toryism doomed to rapid failure whenever it is tried, a failure demonstrated by the collapse of central planning in the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Only libertarianism is truly radical. Only we can complete the unfinished revolution of our great forebears, the bringing of the world from the realm of despotism into the realm of freedom. Only we can replace the governance of men by the administration of things.

The Best of Murray Rothbard

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