white International Society for Individual Liberty > Jeff Riggenbach on Samuel Edward Konkin III
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Sam Konkin

SAMUEL EDWARD KONKIN III

1947-2004

by Jeff Riggenbach

     Make no mistake about it: we have lost a great libertarian, and we will probably not see his like again.

     Samuel Edward Konkin III was born in Saskatchewan, Canada on July 8, 1947. His family moved to neighboring Alberta while he was still a boy, and he grew up in and around Edmonton, finishing high school there and entering the University of Alberta, where he graduated, cum laude, in 1968. By the time he reached the University of Wisconsin later that same year to begin graduate studies in chemistry, he was a confirmed science fiction fan and was particularly enamored of the works of Robert A. Heinlein.

     One of Heinlein's novels in particular had impressed him – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) – in which a group of rebellious colonists on the Moon, under the leadership of a renegade computer and a white-haired political philosopher named Bernardo de la Paz, who advocates something he calls "Rational Anarchy," foment a successful revolution. Sam was already involved in politics by this time, but not libertarian politics – populist politics, rather. At the University of Alberta he had served as head of the Young Social Credit League, a student group allied with the politics of the Social Credit Party, a minor Canadian political party founded in Alberta in the mid-1930s and based on the theories of the British economist Clifford Douglas.

     As the online edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, "Douglas' theory, first promoted in 1919 in the British socialist publication The New Age, sought to remedy the chronic deficiency of purchasing power by issuing additional money to consumers and rendering subsidies to producers in order to liberate production from the price system, without altering private enterprise and profit. The Social Credit movement had a short-lived following in Britain in the 1920s and reached western Canada in the '30s."

     In 1935 the newly established Social Credit Party "won 56 of 63 contested seats in the Alberta Assembly," the Britannica article continues, "thus forming the world's first Social Credit government, which remained in power for 36 years." Later, "it governed British Columbia from 1952, except for the years 1972-75; and it held seats in the Parliament at Ottawa from 1935 to 1980, when it lost all six of its seats."

     In one of the last things he wrote, a message posted to his Left Libertarian e-mail discussion list on Thursday February 5, 2004, Sam offered the following comment on the Social Credit movement:

Paradoxically, as with various populist movements in the United States, I suspect the success of the Social Crediters in Canada actually reflects the ingrained anti-statism of the populace. They rightly perceive corporate capitalism as a system of power; and they likewise see that the banking system is a big part of the power of organized capital. But they fail to fully perceive the role of state capitalist intervention in this power, and are distracted by statist remedies. It's much as is the case with Georgists: they rightly perceive the political appropriation of land (a la Oppenheimer and Nock) as central to exploitation – they just go off track in the proposed remedy.

     "Oddly enough," Sam continued, "the first provincial government of Alberta, 1905-1919, was Georgist (running the Liberal Party then); the second was the United Farmers of Alberta, 1919-1935, whose federal wing was considered the 'ginger group' of the Progressive Party of Canada; and the third was Social Credit (1935-1971)."

     In Madison, it didn't take the young Social Crediter from Alberta long to begin broadening his political horizons. First his new roommate, chemistry Ph.D. candidate and former Ayn Rand devotee Tony Warnock, introduced him to the Wisconsin Conservative Club, where he met people who told him the name of the real political philosopher and teacher upon whom Heinlein had based de la Paz – Robert LeFevre. Before too many more months had passed, Sam had joined Wisconsin YAF and been selected as a delegate to the YAF national convention in St. Louis in August 1969.

     St. Louis was a watershed for Sam's development as a libertarian. He came to the convention still thinking of himself as a young conservative, though what he'd read and learned in the past year from and about Rand, LeFevre, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard had brought him to the edge of a major change in his thinking. "The final step," Sam told an interviewer in 2002, "was provided by an anti-communist free-market anarchist named Dana Rohrabacher at the St. Louis YAF Convention. He was a charismatic campus activist, radicalized by Robert LeFevre, who provided him with small funding to travel the country with his instrument and folk songs from campus to campus, converting YAF chapters into Libertarian Alliances and SIL chapters. Alas, later he fell into politics, but not the LP. The libertarian billionaire Charles Koch supported him in two failed Republican primary campaigns, and after Rohrabacher put in time as Ronald Reagan's speechwriter, he got his reward of a safe seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Orange County. He is still in office today, with growing seniority. There are few issues on which he is still libertarian, cetainly fewer than, say, Ron Paul holds.

     "But in 1969-71, Dana Rohrabacher was the most successful and most beloved libertarian activist, and, in my opinion, there would not have been a movement without him. And he was a close friend of mine until he crossed the line with his campaign for Congress."

     If the St. Louis YAF convention was a watershed in Sam's personal development as a libertarian, it was also a watershed for the libertarian movement. As Sam put it in that same interview,

In 1969, both the SDS and the Young Americans for Freedom split at their respective conventions. The "right" libertarians from YAF joined the free-market anarchists from SDS at a historic conference in New York over Columbus Day weekend, called by Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess. In February of 1970, several activists working for Robert LeFevre organized an even bigger conference in Los Angeles at USC, which included Hess, SDS ex-president Carl Oglesby, and just about every big name in the movement up to that point. I attended both, as well as the YAF Convention in St. Louis before.

     After L.A.'s conference, campus Libertarian Alliances sprang up around the country. I personally organized five in Wisconsin during 1970 and a dozen in downstate New York (New York City and environs) from 1971-73. The Libertarian Party's first "real" campaign was Fran Youngstein for Mayor (of New York City) in 1973, and was the only campaign in which anti-political (what Europeans would call anti-parliamentarian) libertarians worked with [...] anarchists who embraced political office-seeking (whom I named "partyarchs").

     "By that time," Sam continued, "the libertarian movement had grown from 'Murray's living room' (and LeFevre's Freedom School, later Rampart College) into thousands in 1970, tens of thousands in 1971, and hundreds of thousands (some abroad, as in Britain and Australia) in 1972. The steep rate of movement growth leveled off with the rise in visibility of the party."

     There are movement historians who would differ with this account in one or more particulars. For example, Sam neglects to mention the crucial role of Objectivists set adrift by the Rand-Branden split of 1968 in the founding of the Libertarian Party. It is certain that Ayn Rand has converted far more people to libertarianism than Murray Rothbard and Robert LeFevre combined (depending, of course, on how you define "libertarianism") – and this was as true in 1969 as it is today. Also, Sam writes as though SIL, the Society for Individual Liberty, already existed at the time of the St. Louis YAF convention. Its predecessor organization, the Objectivist-oriented Society for Rational Individualism (founded by Jarret Wollstein), had existed for about a year at that time. Still, this is somewhat misleading. SIL was founded in St. Louis in 1969, while the YAF convention was underway across town.

     These quibbles are ultimately of little importance, however. In its main outlines, and with respect to most of its details, Sam's account of the movement's origins and early growth is quite accurate – particularly when judged by the standards appropriate to journalism. And it is as a libertarian journalist that I believe Samuel Edward Konkin III is best remembered and best understood. After the YAF convention, he went back to Madison for a year, then moved on to New York. (After all, Mises and Rothbard were both there.) He transferred his graduate studies to N.Y.U. and finished up his M.S. in Theoretical Chemistry, then began working on a Ph.D. In Manhattan he met Rothbard and became a regular in that famous living room, he attended Ludwig von Mises's famous seminar in Austrian economics at N.Y.U., and he became involved with the nascent Libertarian Party.

     As a delegate from New York City in 1973 and 1974, to the Cleveland and Dallas conventions respectively, Sam organized the original "radical caucus" within the party. Like its successor "radical caucus," founded in the late '70s by Murray Rothbard, Bill Evers, Eric Garris, and Justin Raimondo, it was designed to keep the party properly adherent to libertarian principle. But by late in 1974, Sam had given up on the idea that any such goal could be achieved. He publicly walked out of the party, taking a sizable chunk of its membership with him. Thereafter, he liked to think of himself as "the Libertarian Party's worst living enemy."

     Of more lasting importance was Sam's decision, once he had been in Manhattan for a few hours, to begin publishing. Almost upon his arrival at his new graduate school he assumed the editorship of the NYU Libertarian Notes, a campus newsletter, quickly renaming it New Libertarian Notes and aiming it at a broader readership. His mission, as he saw it, was to "cover" the infant libertarian movement – to report on its issues and events, and to offer commentary aimed at steering the new movement in what Sam took to be the proper direction. There was much going on in Manhattan in the early '70s, much movement ferment and growth. And it was not all in Murray Rothbard's living room. Over on Mercer Street in the Village, Laissez Faire Books, the nation's first libertarian bookstore (unless you count Benjamin R. Tucker's Bookstore at 225 Fourth Avenue, which closed in 1908), was being established by Sharon Presley and John Muller. The Free Libertarian Party was polarizing libertarian strategic thought between those who believed political action could be used to achieve a free society and those who believed political action was a betrayal of libertarian principle. There were talks, parties, gatherings of every kind. It was a scene that cried out for a journalist with the imagination and (given the still very small market for news of this subculture) the sheer guts to make it his chief subject.

     "In 1975," Sam wrote in a short autobiography he prepared for Jeanie Kennedy's Free Exchange in San Francisco late in the '90s, "Sam left New York without turning in his thesis [actually his Ph.D. dissertation] in Quantum Mechanics in order to work full-time in the Libertarian Movement and the great Counter-Economy, proving by example for over a quarter century that one can live a state-free, moral and activist life."

     Sam moved first to Long Beach, California (the fifth largest city in California, with half a million people, about twenty-five miles from downtown Los Angeles). From there he moved to Culver City, an L.A. suburb. Then, after a couple of years in Las Vegas as the new century dawned, he returned to Los Angeles. New Libertarian Notes morphed into New Libertarian Weekly and finally into New Libertarian, a "monthly" that actually appeared on a monthly basis only in fits and starts and finally fizzled out altogether in the '90s. In one or another of its various incarnations, however, New Libertarian was Sam's chief object of attention for more than twenty years. And it was magnificent. At a time when, as Jesse Walker puts it, "the libertarian milieu lacked well-funded think tanks and slick-paper magazines, and when offering a low-budget alternative was not a simple matter of launching a blog," Sam Konkin published consistently and regularly on a shoestring – less than a shoestring. And what he published was some of the most entertaining, provocative, and stimulating stuff to be had anywhere at the time. Many of the best writers in the movement were contributing editors, regular columnists, or frequent contributors to his pages – Robert Anton Wilson, James J. Martin, Wendy McElroy, Murray Rothbard, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Sharon Presley, Robert LeFevre, Eric Scott Royce, George H. Smith – and, of course, he himself was also there, issue after issue, with his often quirky but almost always insightful and incisive commentary on the issues and events of the day and the latest developments in the libertarian movement.

     One of Sam's principal mentors, Ludwig von Mises, argued in his seminal work Theory and History that history is impossible in the absence of certain assumptions – assumptions about what kinds of events are important and what kinds are not, assumptions about the ways in which causality functions in matters of human action. In the absence of such assumptions, the historian would have no basis for deciding what to write about. Precisely the same might be said about journalism. The journalist is, after all, in a manner of speaking, an historian in a hurry. As longtime Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham famously put it, journalism provides "a first rough draft of...history." Indeed, newspapers from a period are regarded by historians as "primary sources" for information about the history of that period. And what it means to describe The New York Times, for example, as the "newspaper of record" for a certain period of the 20th Century is that The New York Times may be relied upon for information about the history of that period, as it unfolded day by day. Sam said on more than one occasion that he considered New Libertarian the publication of record for the libertarian movement, the publication future historians of the movement would turn to for information about the history of the movement, as it unfolded day by day.

     Sam knew that all journalism, like all history, is based on certain assumptions about the human condition and about which things in human experience are more and less important. He knew also that there are two, and only two kinds of journalism – the kind in which these assumptions are consciously held and explicitly identified, and the kind in which they are never identified, even by the journalists whose work they invisibly shape and direct. Sam was always the first sort of journalist: no one reading any of his publications was ever in the slightest doubt about the point of view held by its editor.

     At the same time, Sam never required that his contributors, even his columnists and contributing editors, agree with him about everything. On the contrary: the masthead of New Libertarian proclaimed that "Everyone appearing in this publication disagrees!" At a time (the '70s and '80s) when factionalism within the movement was, if anything, even more virulent than it is today (reminiscent at times of the infighting among the various competing Palestinian groups in Monty Python's Life of Brian), Sam pursued a firm policy of publishing every faction. At a time when he was bitterly attacking the network of organizations and institutions then funded by the Kanas oil billionaire Charles Koch (the Cato Institute, Inquiry magazine, The Libertarian Review, the original Students for a Libertarian Society), he had no qualms about letting me keep my spot on his masthead and my regular column, despite the fact that I was a full time employee of what Sam called "the Kochtopus," working for Cato, Inquiry, and LR, speaking on behalf of SLS – and despite the fact that I disagreed with at least some of his criticisms of the Kochtopus. He made no secret of his own views, of course; in fact, if he published an article by anyone who disagreed with him about anything, he felt free to annotate the article with parenthetical comments in square brackets to make clear what he felt the "plumb line" position was on the topic at hand.

     And what was the "plumb line?" What was the set of assumptions that guided Samuel Edward Konkin III in his practice of libertarian journalism? In a word, Rothbardianism. If memory serves me rightly (and, of course, it seldom does), on the day in 1975 when I first met Sam, I also met another libertarian luminary of the time, Williamson M. "Bill" Evers. One autumn day in Los Angeles I had stopped by George Smith's apartment on my way home from a bookbuying trip and found that he had two guests whom I had never met before. George introduced me to both of them, and, later, when they had left and I was still around, he commented: "You know how some people are strict Randians? Well, Bill is perhaps the best example you could find of a strict Rothbardian." There is ample irony in this memory, for, of the two, it was Sam, not Bill, who proved to be the true Rothbardian. Sam faithfully followed Rothbard in his insistence on a non-interventionist foreign policy. He faithfully followed Rothbard in his denunciation of "public" education. Evers is now a salaried employee of the U.S. Department of Defense, charged with rebuilding the public schools in Baghdad; he calls himself a "libertarian conservative" in print. Rothbard is doubtless spinning in his tomb.

     Sam went on to publish a number of other periodicals, in addition to New Libertarian. There was New Isolationist, Strategy of the New Libertarian Alliance, the Smart Set Libertarian Notes & Calendar, The Agorist Quarterly, and several others. In the late 1980s, flush with the funding his frenzied and not infrequently inspired publishing had attracted, Sam opened a suite of offices for his Agorist Institute (founded in 1984) in a downtown Long Beach office building and proceeded to host a series of classes, conferences, and lectures in addition to his publishing. Earlier in the same decade he completed and published his major strategic statement, the New Libertarian Manifesto.

     Sam had long envied libertarians who had spouses and children; he longed, he said, to breed new libertarians as well as winning them over by persuasion. In 1991 he got his chance. A brief marriage to Sheila Wymer produced a son, Samuel Edward Konkin IV, who is now, longtime family friend J. Neil Schulman informs me, thirteen years old, being homeschooled by his mother, and precociously displaying both "his father's dislike of taxes and [his] fondness for punk rock." Unfortunately, his marriage also derailed Sam's ambitious publishing program. And though it ended soon enough (the marriage, that is), Sam never really recovered. Up to the time of his death, he announced the impending resurrection of New Libertarian and the impending new era in which his websites – http://www.agorist.org, http://www.newlibertarian.com – would be made current and then continuously updated. But it never happened. Something had gone out of Sam, something that had fueled his seemingly limitless energy of the '70s and '80s, and it never came back.

     What he leaves behind is his legacy as the premier libertarian journalist of his era. Sam was a leading-edge babyboomer, and, as such, a member of the second generation of leadership in the "modern" libertarian movement – that is, the movement that came into existence in the 1940s with the publication of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine, Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom, Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and Ludwig von Mises's Human Action, and with the founding in 1946 of the Foundation for Economic Education. The first generation of this modern movement's leadership was made up of intellectuals who grew up in the first three decades of the 20th Century – Rand, Rothbard, LeFevre, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, Read. The second generation was made up of intellectuals born in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Out of this second generation there were to come two great libertarian journalists – Roy A. Childs, Jr. (1949-1992) and Samuel Edward Konkin III (1947-2004). Both were to die too young. Childs has been suitably memorialized in print with a fine collection of his magazine and newsletter essays and reviews, Liberty Against Power (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1994). It is to be hoped that a similar posthumous collection will be made of the writings of Samuel Edward Konkin III, who died on February 23, 2004, the better to extend his legacy to the next generation of libertarians, and the next.


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