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Saturday, May 24, 2014

What Libertarians Should Learn From the Abolitionists - Murray N. Rothbard

Mises Daily: Saturday, May 24, 2014 by Murray N. Rothbard
[A Selection from Libertarian Review, August 1978.] 

If victory is indeed our given end, an end given to us by the requirements of justice, then we must strive to achieve that end as rapidly as we can.

But this means that libertarians must not adopt gradualism as part of their goal; they must wish to achieve liberty as early and as rapidly as possible. Otherwise, they would be ratifying the continuation of injustice. They must be “abolitionists.”

The objection is often raised that abolitionism is “unrealistic,” that liberty (or any other radical social goal) can be achieved only gradually. Whether or not this is true (and the existence of radical upheavals demonstrates that such is not always the case), this common charge gravely confuses the realm of principle with the realm of strategy ...

The “realism” of the goal can only be challenged by a critique of the goal itself, not in the problem of how to attain it. Then, after we have decided on the goal, we face the entirely separate strategic question of how to attain that goal as rapidly as possible, how to build a movement to attain it, etc.

Thus, William Lloyd Garrison was not being “unrealistic” when, in the 1830s, he raised the glorious standard of immediate emancipation of the slaves. His goal was the proper one, and his strategic realism came in the fact that he did not expect his goal to be quickly reached. Or, as Garrison himself distinguished,
Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend. (The Liberator, August 13, 1831)

From a strictly strategic point of view, it is also true that if the adherents of the “pure” goal do not state that goal and hold it aloft, no one will do so, and the goal therefore will never be attained. Furthermore, since most people and most politicians will hold to the “middle” of whatever “road” may be offered them, the “extremist,” by constantly raising the ante, and by holding the pure or “extreme” goal aloft, will move the extremes further over, and will therefore pull the “middle” further over in his extreme direction. Hence, raising the ante by pulling the middle further in his direction will, in the ordinary pulling and hauling of the political process, accomplish more for that goal, even in the day-by-day short run, than any opportunistic surrender of the ultimate principle.

In her brilliant study of the strategy and tactics of the Garrison wing of the abolitionist movement, Aileen Kraditor writes,

It follows, from the abolitionist’s conception of his role in society, that the goal for which he agitated was not likely to be immediately realizable. Its realization must follow conversion of an enormous number of people, and the struggle must take place in the face of the hostility that inevitably met the agitator for an unpopular cause. ... The abolitionists knew as well as their later scholarly critics that immediate and unconditional emancipation could not occur for a long time. But unlike those critics they were sure it would never come unless it were agitated for during the long period in which it was impracticable. ...

To have dropped the demand for immediate emancipation because it was unrealizable at the time would have been to alter the nature of the change for which the abolitionists were agitating. That is, even those who would have gladly accepted gradual and conditional emancipation had to agitate for immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery because that demand was required by their goal of demonstrating to white Americans that Negroes were their brothers. Once the nation had been converted on that point, conditions and plans might have been made.

Their refusal to water down their “visionary” slogan was, in their eyes, eminently practical, much more so than the course of the antislavery senators and congressmen who often wrote letters to abolitionist leaders justifying their adaptation of antislavery demands to what was attainable. ... 

If the primary and overriding goal of the libertarian movement must be the victory of liberty as rapidly as possible, then the primary task of that movement must be to employ the most efficacious means to arrive at that goal.

To be efficacious, to achieve the goal of liberty as quickly as possible, it should be clear that the means must not contradict the ends. For if they do, the ends are being obstructed instead of pursued as efficiently as possible. For the libertarian, this means two things:
  • that he must never deny or fail to uphold the ultimate goal of libertarian victory; and
  • that he must never use or advocate the use of unlibertarian means — of aggression against the persons or just property of others.
Thus, the libertarian must never, for the sake of alleged expediency, deny or conceal his ultimate objective of complete liberty; and he must never aggress against others in the search for a world of nonaggression. For example, the Bolsheviks, before the revolution, financed themselves partially by armed robbery in the name of “expropriating” capitalists; clearly, any use of aggression against private property in order to finance the libertarian movement, in addition to being immoral by libertarian principles, would cut against those principles themselves and their ultimate attainment. READ MORE…