‘In memory of Karl Hess,’ reads the opening page of the 2011 essay collection Markets Not Capitalism, edited by Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier.
On a surface level, it might seem odd to find a dedication to Hess — a primary author of the Republican Party’s early 1960s platforms who had earlier been involved in the launch of William F. Buckley’s National Review — in a left-leaning anarchist book that rails against “bosses, inequality, corporate power, and structural poverty.”
But then, Hess is a figure whose political journey was more complex and revelatory than most. The journey of Karl Hess (1923-1994) is one that is worth retracing today as a means of understanding the roots of contemporary libertarianism, its early flirtations with radical countercultural politics, and the outdated left-right political paradigm in general.
From shaping the Republican platform to embracing anarchist thought
Karl Hess was born in Washington, D.C. on May 25, 1923. He displayed an artisan’s spirit from a young age, and soon applied his knack for craftsmanship to the written word; first as a journalist, and then as a political ghost writer. As principal speechwriter for Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, his talents as a wordsmith found widespread acclaim while also shaping a Republican platform around small government and fiscal austerity.
But Hess later became disillusioned with the GOP, gradually developing a more radical set of beliefs.
By the late 1960s, Hess had fully embraced anarchist thought. He later claimed that, within the writings of anarchist figurehead Emma Goldman, “everything I had hoped that the Republican Party would stand for suddenly came out crystallized in this magnificently clear statement,” and that anarchists such as Goldman had understood “that all history is the struggle of the individual against the institutions, which, of course, is what I’d always thought Republicans were saying.”
Hess’ embrace of radical countercultural ideas
The refocusing of Hess’ deepest principles coincided with seismic shifts in America’s radical political landscape. As a contemporary of Murray Rothbard, Hess embraced libertarian alliances with the New Left, following Rothbard’s own disillusionment with the Right in an age of war protests and rising countercultural developments.
During this period of social and political unrest, Hess, Rothbard, and their followers presented a valuable critique of corporate state-capitalism that appealed to free-marketeers and the New Left alike; their ideas found sympathy among culturally radical libertarians who embraced the hippie counterculture’s transgressive elements.
Hess’ 1969 essay The Death of Politics, originally published in Playboy, remains one of the most enduring libertarian texts of the period. Fully shedding his Republican skin, Hess asserts that transgressions against freedom can be deterred “…only by a radical questioning of power itself, and by the libertarian vision that sees man as capable of moving on without the encumbering luggage of laws and politics that do not merely preserve man’s right to his life but attempt, in addition, to tell him how to live it.”
While Rothbard later shifted rightward, eventually embracing paleo-libertarianism, Hess’ trajectory shifted even further towards the countercultural left, as he rubbed shoulders with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the International Workers of the World (IWW) and even the Black Panther Party.
In such groups he sought kinships tailored to the logical conclusions of his philosophy: a world of decentralized communities and free individuals existing outside the nexus of corporations and the state, reinforcing their autonomy through commerce, community, mutual aid, and everything in between.
Hess’ vision for decentralized communities
Liberty, for Hess, contained multitudes; endless ways of living, a thousand flowers blooming. In his 1980 article Anarchism Without Hyphens, he recognized the multiple possibilities of a free society, noting that “anarchism, liberty, does not tell you a thing about how free people will behave or what arrangements they will make… It does not say how to be free. It says only that freedom, liberty, can exist.”
The Oscar-winning short documentary Karl Hess: Beyond Liberty (1980) demonstrates this ethos in action. By then in his fifties, we see Hess, the former Beltway campaign trail Republican, settled into a laissez-faire lifestyle as it pertains to him: a self-sufficient existence in West Virginia; localized, employing his born craftsmanship as a welder, off the grid.
His 1979 book Community Technology details his experiment, with a small network of friends and colleagues, to bring participatory democracy and self-sustaining energy/food equipment to a poor African American community in D.C., further championing the left-libertarian values of simple living, mutual aid, and community participation.
This philosophy and lifestyle, of course, isn’t for everyone. Hess told an audience in 1987 that “part of the practice of liberty is to either be superbly rich or creatively poor.” There is room in a free society for both the wealth-chasing entrepreneur and the cabin-dwelling hermit.
As he further elaborated in Anarchism Without Hyphens, “…some are anarchists who will deal, voluntarily, only in gold, will never co-operate, and swirl their capes. Some are anarchists who, voluntarily, worship the sun and its energy, build domes, eat only vegetables, and play the dulcimer… Some are anarchists who see only the stars. Some are anarchists who see only the mud.”
Hess’ enduring libertarian manifesto
Hess’ ideological journey provides a useful lens with which to reconsider the left-right political spectrum: he is often described as being both a left-libertarian and an anarcho-capitalist. This might seem like a contradiction, but only when one considers the cartoonish caricatures of these ideologies (the cape-swirling ancap and the dulcimer-playing hippie, if you like).
Like Rothbard had done in Left and Right: The Prospects For Liberty (1965), Hess considered the traditional origins of the left-right paradigm in his 1975 book Dear America, recalling an original ‘left’ of radical liberalism, progress and industry, vs. an original ‘right’ of monarchy, order, authoritarianism and concentrated power.
It is useful to recall these origins today (regardless of where you place yourself on the political spectrum) as a reminder that enterprise, commerce, and individualism rightfully belong on the same ‘side’ as community, radicalism, and the disruption of entrenched, unearned power.
A century after Karl Hess was born, his legacy continues to inspire. He once remarked “I am by occupation a free marketer (crafts and ideas, woodworking, welding, and writing)” and so today I urge you to follow his example. Learn a craft or trade. Invest in Bitcoin. Grow a vegetable garden. Sell products under the counter. Lend your skills to the community. Partake in something, small and meaningful, outside of the prying eyes of state and corporate interests. Question power itself. Do your bit to create a voluntary world.
Happy birthday, Karl.
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