Monday, June 10, 2013

Important Libertarian History: Walter Block Remembers Karl Hess and the Rothbard Circle

On Karl Hess
By Walter Block

A reader of asked me some questions about Karl Hess. After I answered him, I realized that his questions, and my answers (<<) might be of interest to many other readers of LRC. But first, a caveat. All of my answers are from memory, only. I kept no records. My memory is not that good regarding some of these episodes. I’m no historian. There are people far better able than me to answer these questions (see below for my listing of Murray’s living room crowd), I think, but I’m not even sure of that. So, take my responses to these questions with a bit of a grain of salt, gentle reader.

Here is what this reader of asked me:

Please answer none/any/or all of these questions at your leisure. Let me know if any of the questions are based on false pretenses.

1.) What do you remember about the first time you met Hess? Did you know about his past with Goldwater at that moment?

<< Murray Rothbard introduced him to me. Yes, I knew about his Goldwater speech writing background. Karl joined Murray’s living room crowd in the late 1960s. I was also a member.

2.) What was he like to be around? Demeanor, casual communication, socializing, etc.

<< Karl was lovely. Personable. When I first met him, he was a bit conservative. Then a few months later came his libertarian period. After a few years he became a leftie. He was a lovely person all throughout this strange odyssey of his. Karl did his very good Playboy interview in 1969. So that must have been the apex of his libertarianism. I probably met Karl in 1968; maybe, 1967.

3.) Did he participate in the Peace and Freedom party activities?

<< Not to my recollection. I'm pretty sure not. Perhaps he was in Wash DC then and P&F was in NYC. The P&F movement was composed of three factions. The largest was the Trotskyites; they had about 300 members. Then came the Maoists; perhaps 100 people in their group. Then, there was Murray and his merry band. There might have been about 10 of us. I distinctly remember Jerry Tuccille being in our group.

I would say that the core of Murray’s living room crowd consisted of these people:

Murray and Joey, Joe Peden, Leonard Liggio, Walter Grinder, Ralph Raico, Ron Hamowy, Jerry Woloz, Bob Smith, Mario Rizzo, Jerry O'Driscoll, Walter Block, Larry Moss, Joe Salerno.

There were some others on the periphery:

Joan Kennedy Taylor, Jerry Tuccille, Mark Powelson, Dale Grinder, John Hagel, Randy Barnett, Gary Greenberg, Howie Rich, Andrea Rich, Wilson Clark,  Roy Childs, Bill Baumgarth, Fr. Jim Sadowsky, S.J., Karl Hess, Stan Lehr, Lew Rosetto, Lew Spadaro.

The libertarian caucus of the Peace and Freedom Party was drawn from this group. One of the highlights of this experience was our association with the Maoists, vis a vis the Trots. I remember on one occasion under Murray’s direction I voted in favor of rent control (I was then writing my PhD dissertation on that topic), since the Maoists voted for the gold standard. Those were heady days.

4.) Did you witness his speech under the St. Louis arch at the YAF convention? What did you think of it?

<< Yes, I was there. Karl gave a VERY good talk. This was in the midst of his libertarian period. I remember this since I brought hundreds of copies of the Libertarian Forum, with Murray’s magnificent piece in it, "Listen, YAF!" I just read it again, and the words still leap off the page at me.

5.) What do you remember about the role he played at the YAF convention?

<< Karl helped start the modern libertarian movement. A decisive point was when the libertarians split off from the YAF Buckleyites. I asked William F. Buckley if he'd be willing to debate Karl. Buckley politely declined. I think that Karl’s activities at this convention, plus Murray’s magnificent essay, were the key points.

6.) What do you remember about the Columbus Day conference?

<< This was the beginning of Karl's move toward the left. Murray had worked hard on getting that conference going; this might have been the very first such conference of the modern libertarian era. Karl led about half of the participants away to a protest at Fort Dix. Murray's view was that the intellectual battle was crucial to our movement. Karl was then into what Murray derisively dismissed as "seizing a street": engaging in violent confrontations with cops without much care or concern for the intellectual battle. I think this was the beginning of the split between Murray and Karl.

7.) Did you ever communicate with him after the late 60's early 70's?

<<I was once at an ISIL conference with Karl, I think in the 70s in Sweden I think it was. Maybe Norway. Karl was deeply into his leftie phase then. Anyway, a bunch of local hippie leftie socialists wanted to be let into the conference to debate us. Karl supported that. I bitterly opposed it, inspired by Murray's reaction to Karl's behavior at the Columbus Day conference. I said that we libertarians had travelled thousands of miles to be with each other; hippie leftie socialists were a dime a dozen. Why lower ourselves to talk to them, when we had important things to discuss with each other? This, especially when the event had been carefully planned with that in mind; shades of the Columbus Day conference in NYC. Karl was disappointed in me. He complained to me afterward that I was always attacking him. I felt badly. I liked Karl. But he was so wrong on so many things when he was in his leftie period. And not just strategy.

8.) Feel free to share anything else you remember about him. You're Walter Block, so I find just about everything you say interesting. (way to gladhand right?)

<< Karl was a magnificent public speaker. He was a good friend. I hated to disagree with him as sharply as I did. I remember once I was at a conference with him, and he dragged me and Jerry Tuccille to some all night massage parlor (not a sexual one; actual massages, whirlpools, swimming pools) where you could sleep over. It was a pleasure to be in his company. He was very witty. It was a joy to be with him. I treasure my memories of Karl.

9.) I've never been totally clear about his leftward drift. Was he full on Murray Bookchin style at any point, or syndicalist, or was it an idiosyncratic mix of anarcho-communist/propertarian ideas?

<< I tell you, I can’t help you much here. I don’t make such fine distinctions between syndicalism, Marxism, Bookchinism, anarcho-communism, etc. It all sounds like balderdash to me. But yes, Karl came under the influence of the evil Murray Bookchin. They were great buddies. Ok, ok, Bookchin, like most lefties, was good on some things. U.S. imperialism, foreign wars, etc. But on economics he, and Karl along with him at that time, Bookchin was a total waste. Sort of like Noam Chomsky.

10. Is there any proof (pdf image file, something in a book, a public record) of his 100% IRS lien?

<< I left NYC for a job at the Fraser Institute in 1979, and thus left the Rothbard living room crowd then, so my memory of this time period is even hazier. I only remember that Karl’s life was very troubled by his refusal to pay taxes. Some people said that Murray Rothbard advised Karl to do this. I give the back of my hand to that theory. Murray himself denied giving any such advice. Murray paid his own taxes. Refusing to pay taxes is more like picketing at Fort Dix than engaging in intellectual dialogue. It is more "Karl" than "Murray."

Murray Rothbard's attitude on income taxes was the same as Burt Blumert's (another member of Murray's living room crowd who lived in California): There was no libertarian reason to pay them, of course, but if you chose not to do so, it became the focus of your whole life, which seemed imprudent. They both paid.

11. Speaking of Bookchin, what did he do that made Rothbard kick him out of his apartment? Was it his views?

<< Yes, it was Bookchin’s views. In my opinion, Murray had the patience of a saint. Certainly, he always exhibited that in relation to me. Murray was always very gentle with me, and, I was very much more a pain in the rear end in those days than even am I now. However, the patience of saints is not infinite. I forget what the exact issue between the two Murrays was. Maybe Ralph Raico remembers? My guess it was something like Bookchin defending labor unions or tariffs, or some such. I remember huddling afterward with Wilson Clark and Jerry Woloz. None of had expected that breakup. You have to remember that in those days, we libertarians were so few. Murray was continually looking for allies, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. Sometimes to convert them, sometimes to do some good (e.g., oppose the war in Viet Nam), typically to do both. Murray was doing all he could to promote liberty, as he did his entire adult life. Sometimes, these coalitions just don’t work out; as in the case with Murray Bookchin.

The above originally appeared at LewRockwell.comDr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the UndefendableThe Case for DiscriminationLabor Economics From A Free Market PerspectiveBuilding Blocks for Liberty,Differing Worldviews in Higher Education, and The Privatization of Roads and Highways. His latest book is Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so jealous of those guys. In those days, I thought I was the only anarchist in the world.

    Not so today.

    As an atheist, all I can say is "God Bless the Internet!".