Karl Hess: 1923-1994
The following are selected passages from the writings of Karl Hess.
This is not a time of radical, revolutionary politics. Not yet. Unrest,
riot, dissent and chaos notwithstanding, today's politics is reactionary. Both
right and left are reactionary and authoritarian. That is to say: Both are
political. They seek only to revise current methods of acquiring and wielding
political power. Radical and revolutionary movements seek not to revise but to
revoke. The target of revocation should be obvious. The target is politics
Radicals and revolutionaries have had their sights trained on politics
for some time. As governments fail around the world, as more millions become
aware that government never has and never can humanely and effectively manage
men's affairs, government's own inadequacy will emerge, at last, as the basis
for a truly radical and revolutionary movement. In the meantime, the
radical-revolutionary position is a lonely one. It is feared or hated, by both
right and left-although both right and left must borrow from it to survive. The
radical-revolutionary position is libertarianism and its socioeconomic form is
laissez-faire capitalism. . .
Libertarianism is rejected by the modern left-which preaches
individualism but practices collectivism. Capitalism is rejected by the modern
right-which preaches enterprise but practices protectionism. The libertarian
faith in the mind of man is rejected by religionists who have faith only in the
sins of man. The libertarian insistence that men be free to spin cables of steel
as well as dreams of smoke is rejected by hippies who adore nature but spurn
creation. The libertarian insistence that each man is a sovereign land of
liberty, with his primary allegiance to himself, is rejected by patriots who
sing of freedom but also shout of banners and boundaries. There is no operating
political movement in the world today that is based upon a libertarian
philosophy. If there were, it would be in the anomalous position of using
political power to abolish political power.
Perhaps a regular political movement, overcoming this anomaly, will
actually develop. . .
From "The Death of Politics," Playboy, March 1969.
When I was very young, I most wanted to be a scientist, isolated and
brilliant, probing and illuminating mysteries, a pure soul floating in a
laboratory universe, detatched, cold, exalted. Then I wanted to be famous and a
bit rich, noted for having political power without the mess of political
responsibility, a speech-writing ghost but still a sort of pure soul floating in
a marble-halled universe, detached, cool, and celebrated. What I want now is so
different. It requires nothing but space and time and work. It does not float,
it walks in the neighborhood. It is not detached, it is a mosaic of meetings,
friendships, tasks, celebrations (without celebrity). It still includes science
but it knows science as the most socail of human actions, a shared heritage, an
age-long persistence of reason, something that floats beautifully in the head,
not in outer space, an occasion for the pleasures of creativity more than the
proddings of pride. For honor it substitutes, simply, honesty and for loyalty it
certainly substitutes friendship.
What I want from social change is freedom from all those institutional
chains which in the past have bound us to the purposes and projects of others,
without consent, without real recourse. I want the freedom to be responsible for
my own actions, and I want my actions to be judged by those whom those actions
affect. I want my citizenship in a community to be a nondelegatable aspect of my
life, reflecting my place in the community and respecting yours. I want to live
in a community where people are so sure of themselves, as human beings, that
they can respect differences in others without being deferential to difference,
or frightened by it, or cowed by it. I want to join in the applause for a
neighbor's task superbly done but I do not want to be enlisted in a fan club. I
want to live in a community where, no matter any other skills, decent human
beings all will practice those skills which all may possess in common,
truthfulness, consideration of others, a sense of proportion in undertakings and
in ambitions, and the various human traits associated woth deep love of another
and an abiding respectful sense of self.
In practical terms, as it turns out, it means living very much as I live
today. For me and for many people I know, social change has been made, even
though we know it has been made within institutional spaces which could close at
a moment's notice. Changes have been made. They have not been secured.
From "Dear America," William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1975.
PLAYBOY: But no man is without ambition. What's yours?
HESS: I want to be the perfect anarchist.
PLAYBOY: Which is?
HESS: A good friend, good lover, good neighbor.
PLAYBOY: That's all there is to being an anarchist?
HESS: What did you expect, a lot of rules?
PLAYBOY: We expected one rule: "Resist authority at all cost."
HESS: By resistance you seem to be implying armed revolution. But that's not
always necessary. For example, the Presidency could be overthrown tomorrow if
the American people suddenly began laughing at it, or ignoring it.
PLAYBOY: Are you saying that sometimes revolution can be accomplished through
HESS: Sure, and why reach for the musket if all you need is a custard pie.
From "The Playboy Interview," Playboy, July 1976.
There are many people who will quail at our principles, who are so unsure
of freedom that they see its preservation only in its abandonment. There are
many who fear freedom's responsibilities. They huddle, timid and afraid, under
the spell of those now in power, who promise every protection but are willing to
take no risks. We seek the support of those Americans who have not forgotten
what an adventure this land has always been, who are neither afraid nor ashamed
of what freedom has accomplished, and who will pledge their future to a life in
freedom rather than mortgage it to fear, to regimentation, to a garrison state.
But the timid still will ask: How can we be sure it will work? The answer
is clear. We cannot be sure. There are no guarantees, only opportunities.
Freedom to act, to achieve, to own, to create, to speak, to be good stewards of
our land, and to arrange our lives as we see fit, respecting the right of all
others to do the same-that freedom has been our vision. Some say it is our myth.
I say it is our possibility.
From "If I Were Running Against Reagan," Harper's Magazine, July 1984.
I have been jailed by the state. I have been deprived of property by the
state. The state did not teach me to read and write. It did not make me a good
neighbor. It did not inspire me, solace me, heal me. It has not given me
anything that it did not first extort from me.
Nevertheless, as the words of liberty ring more and more across the land,
there are those who ask why we should worry about having a political activity
specifically devoted to liberty. Are not others now going to carry the banner?
I hope so. Everyone, consciously libertarian or not, who speaks well of
liberty and, more importantly, acts to enjoy it or extend it, is welcome in my
view. But why should that welcome weaken for a moment my enthusiasm for the
voices of those who are consciously, actively, powerfully libertarians and who,
simply, want to participate in a political process which, despite all reasonable
antipathy for it, remains a practical arena in which human action can extend or
retract liberty? I not only want to applaud all of them, I want to share the
struggle with them. . .
A final word: I have, during years of participation in libertarian
gatherings, and activities, been described as a "scold," nagging away at the
notion that libertarians should balance their deep concern for precise theory
and love of internecine argumentation with enthusiastic concern for actions in
the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace and in public forums. I do not
anticipate changing. Nor will I feel offended at all if no one pays any
From "Why Me?" Libertarian Party NEWS, March/April 1986.
My mother, without ever having heard the term as far as I know, raised me
to be a libertarian. And in every job,or political or social cause in which I
have been involved since 1938, when I turned 15 and went to work, it has been my
libertarian urge, mother-taught, that has kept me reasonably 'sane,'
self-esteeming, and secure enough to live my life on my own terms and not on
someone else's ideological or managerial leash.
Had my mother ever paused practicing libertarianism long enough to ponder
it, I think she would have defined it in stern (Stirnerite?) terms of
individualism. Liberty, to her, was simply being human to the hilt; being
absolutely responsible for your own choices in life, questioning authority,
being honest in all dealing with others, and never initiating force to get your
way or condoning it for someone else to get their way.
From "The Most Unforgettable Libertarian I Ever Knew," Liberty, December
Please do not ever let this party become as inner-directed as once it
was. Do not let it serve the personal vanities of those who mainly want power,
even power just in our own relatively small pond.
Keep your eyes focused on the world of your neighbors and your
communities. Speak to them in their own terms, make your suggestions clearly in
those terms, avoid unfamiliar cant and theory.
There is no part of libertarianism that cannot be applied to solvable
problems, and in simple, practical language. We can avoid pompous phrases and
ritual codes learned from people we may revere but might not understand. Echoing
wise people may make us sound impressive. But being able to apply our individual
creativity to locally solvable problems makes us respectable.
Judge for yourself, by actual performance, the effectiveness of those
whose major energies are spent relentlessly attacking their enemies in the
party-or the party itself-as compared to those who just keep sloggling away at
building the party, opposing restrictions against liberty, and winning those
positions from which they can more effectively do it.
Think of whether you have ever met a libertarian who is more a threat to
you than is a willing, serving agent of the state. More irritating perhaps. More
dangerous? I doubt it. Happily, such libertarians are far more easily ignored
than the agents of the state. Just say NO.
From "A Fond Farewell," Libertarian Party NEWS, July 1990.